Lolo Jones hasn’t returned to China since 2008, since one bad step in what was then the biggest race of her life cost her an Olympic gold medal.
She’s never wanted to go back.
Her stance might change in 2022.
Jones — the longtime U.S. hurdles star who decided to add sliding to her resume a few years ago — is back with USA Bobsled, making this season’s 10-woman national team as a push athlete. That puts her squarely in the mix for the next Olympics, which just happen to be in Beijing, the city where that misstep in the 100-meter hurdle final happened 12 years ago.
“I would love to have the biggest failure of my life turned into the biggest success, and I would love for people to be encouraged by that persistence, determination, all these cliche things that Olympians say,” Jones told The Associated Press.
“And so, can I make it happen? I don’t know, but we are in the home stretch. We’re in the last part of this long, long race and I’m going to do my hardest to return to Beijing, the place that has hurt my career the most and turn it around.”
It’s not a farfetched plan. In her most recent four World Cup appearances — in fairness, the last of those was nearly three years ago — she helped the U.S. win a medal, two of them gold.
Jones went to the Olympics for track in 2008 and again at London in 2012, then made the bobsled Olympic team for the Sochi Games in 2014. She withdrew from the 2016 U.S. Olympic track trials while recovering from hip surgery and wasn’t picked for the 2018 Olympic bobsled team. She was training for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which have been delayed a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
So, she’s back in bobsled. And at 38, she knows that Olympic window is closing.
“I would say she really has a real chance,” USA Bobsled and Skeleton CEO Aron McGuire said. “She knows what it takes for her specifically but she knows what it takes generally to be at a point where she is one of the top athletes in the world in whatever she is doing, whether it’s hurdling or pushing a bobsled. And she has that drive. She has that commitment to it and that passion that will certainly put her in a position to be one of the top athletes push athletes if that’s what she puts her mind to.”
McGuire was in the stands that day in Beijing in 2008. He was working for USA Track and Field at the time and saw her run clear from the rest of the field before hitting the next-to-last hurdle in the gold-medal race. She stumbled, lost all her momentum and crossed the line in seventh.
“The ironic thing is that she was covering more distance between hurdles than she normally does because her velocity was so high,” McGuire said. “It’s a crazy thing. She was closer to the hurdles than normal because of that velocity. Had she been going just a little slower, she would have won that race.”
There is no such thing as too much velocity in bobsled. Her job: be in perfect harmony with the driver for about 45 yards of a dead sprint at the start, pushing the sled down the top of the chute as quickly and forcefully as possible, then hop aboard and let the driver do the rest.
Jones thought she was done with bobsledding after not making the 2018 Olympic team. Then Kaillie Humphries — the two-time Olympic champion, three-time Olympic medalist and reigning world champion — sent her a direct message on social media about returning to the U.S. team.
“Slid into my DMs,” Jones said.
Before long, Jones was sliding again.
Jones was just in Lake Placid, New York — USA Bobsled’s training base — for about a month to prepare for team trials and selection races. That came after she completed filming for a reality show for MTV, and she wasn’t anywhere near as heavy as she would prefer to be for bobsledding. Her ideal weight for track is around 135 pounds; for bobsledding, it can reach 165. But she made the team anyway, opening the door for possibly a fourth Olympic berth.
That, of course, would mean a return to Beijing. It won’t be easy. There’s races to get through, other hopefuls to beat out and a selection committee to impress, but she’s got a chance and sees the obvious symmetry.
Beijing is where it all went wrong. It could now be where she finally gets that long-awaited medal.
“How can it be a coincidence?” Jones said. “But what’s more important for me, and it’s always been very important, is facing my fears. And in 2008, I was winning that race, and I hit a hurdle and it costs me Olympic gold. Nothing would mean more to me than to face my fears of 12 years of being ridiculed for not getting an Olympic medal, to going back to the same place where everybody said I blew it, everybody called me a failure all these years, and being successful.”