“My dad, he was always in and out of prison, for drunk driving or like, violence or whatever. The specific details were never provided, it would just be like, ‘Okay, your dad’s in jail or whatever,’ and we’d never know when he would come back.” As Lolo Jones remembers missing her father as a child, growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, you see a family photo: Lolo and her four brothers and sisters smiling up at the camera, their dad James looking down and away. A sentimental piano track plays accompanies her narration, bridging over separate interviews with her brother James Jr. and her dad James. “I ended up doing at least 12 years flat before I was released, so I know she had a long, hard row to hoe,” says James.
This phrase, “a long hard row,” sums up the story of Lolo Jones according to Lolo, ESPN’s documentary, premiering this week. A champion hurdler, she’s almost as famous for her setbacks as for her triumphs, including three NCAA titles when she was at LSU, and 60-meter indoor national titles in 2007, 2008, and 2009, and gold medals at the World Indoor Championship in 2008 and 2010. “It’s my job to hurdle over obstacles,” she says now, “Sometimes bad things are going to happen in your life, and those things can make you stronger if you just learn how to get over them.”
Among the things she’s had to “get over” are the challenges of being mixed race kids living with their white mom in Des Moines in the 1980s. Lolo doesn’t explore those challenges, instead focusing on her memories of James, “a great dad” in his own way. When James was gone, Jones remembers, she learned to take care of herself, in part by shoplifting (not clothes or shoes like other kids, she says, but “frozen dinners at the grocery store,” along with “candy bars, snacks, anything I needed to make sure I had food”). When he was home, he’d buy “cheap cars to get us through a season and they’d always break down.” Her story here is accompanied by slow-motion reenactments, the child Lolo and James, leaving their broken down car behind and literally running home in the snow. “Running was like the friend that never left,” she says now, “It was just always there.”
Lolo came to see running as a “way out of poverty.” In order to compete in high school, she moved in with a guardian, Kim Walker, and his family during her senior year. Her dedication led her to a scholarship at LSU, where she became part of a long legacy, 11 years of championships under Coach Dennis Shaver. He remembers being impressed during her initial interview: “She seemed highly motivated,” he says, “She convinced me she was serious about what some people might consider unrealistic goals for a 17-year-old to express.” The film reports that Shaver became something of a father figure for Jones and that college provided her with a sense of structure (an unusual turn, Shaver suggests, since so many college students find the first years at school to be less stable than chaotic).
The film submits that Jones developed her own sense of stability, much as she had as a child, in her running and hurdling. It underlines the hard work Jones put in at LSU, in part through the usual sorts of images, photos and grainy track meet footage. She describes what it means to run a hurdles race, as the film shows her in slow motion. “You have to focus on every detail to perfection,” she says. “It feels like I’m doing a homework assignment… I feel like an engineer.”
Jones’ story includes other victories and some controversy (as when she was deemed a “sex symbol,” after she posed for ESPN The Magazine in 2009). She made the US Olympic team in 2008, set to compete in the 60 meter and 100 meter hurdles. In the 100, she led the field until the second to last hurdle, which she knocked down. At the time, she says in Lolo, no one knew she had a tethered spine, a condition she likely had since childhood. She’s since had surgery on her spinal cord, and is trying to make the 2012 Olympics team at the trials in Eugene, Oregon this June.
Lolo’s story is revisited as well by HBO’s Real Sports, starting on 22 May, with a focus on her efforts to remain a virgin until marriage: “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she tells Mary Carillo, “Harder than training for the Olympics, harder than graduating from college.” She smiles, “I’ve had guys tell me, you know, if you have sex, it will help you run faster.”
She laughs now. And if she’s had plenty of reasons not to laugh in the past, she’s also philosophical, not to mention a terrifically charismatic performer. There are lessons to be had in winning, no doubt. But Jones says in Lolo, “There’s a bigger lesson in defeat.”