If Lolo Jones had cleanly cleared that ninth hurdle in Beijing in 2008, she wouldn't be climbing into the back of a speeding bobsled. She wouldn't be devouring double cheeseburgers garnished with bacon as she hungrily traveled from svelte 130-pounder intent on moving fast to a sturdy 160-pounder pushing an ice missile.
Jones longs for an Olympic medal the way Jay Gatsby longed for Daisy. This quest for a medal, any medal, has defined her life for a decade. This longing has taken her on a long, strange trip from sprinting on a track to warily working as a brakewoman.
She came so close. In 2008, Jones was leading the pack in the 100-meter hurdles at the Beijing Games. A medal was certain. Gold was probable.
And then ...
She clipped the ninth hurdle, briefly lost her stride and finished seventh instead of first. Think about it: She was meters away from gold and ending the chase that has defined her athletic life.
Since she clipped the hurdle, and missed her medal, Jones has enjoyed and endured quite a ride. She sold, via ads, Degree deodorant, McDonald's hamburgers, Nike shoes, Red Bull caffeine buzzes and Oakley sunglasses. She announced, at age 30, that she was a virgin. She proclaimed a crush on fellow Christian Tim Tebow. She posed naked in ESPN the Magazine and nearly naked on the cover of Outside Magazine. She struggled with a career-threatening spinal injury. She tried and failed (again) to win a hurdles medal at the 2012 London Games. She posted a picture of her bobsled paycheck, starting yet another controversy.
Jones says she savors the relative anonymity of life as a bobsled racer. She wants, or so she says, to blend into the snowy landscape as a hard-working woman in the back of a sled. She hopes to compete in Sochi, Russia, as a member of the Olympic team. Her quest remains shaky. She remains a long shot to make the team when the Olympic Trials resume Oct.?25.
"I'm blending and I actually like that better," Jones said this month while chatting with journalists in Park City, Utah. "In bobsledding you're not supposed to talk. I was getting bashed in the media - not by you guys, you guys are awesome - but once you're out there in the sled, the helmets are on and everyone is equal. The world of bobsledding has embraced me and protected me and given me a break from ..."
"You know. You know what I mean."
Here's the problem with Jones' attempt to just be part of the team:
She never was meant to blend. She's a natural star. She relishes, and this is obvious anytime she speaks, the chance to talk about her work and her life and her struggles and her hopes and her lost chances and ...
"I want to tell my story," she said.
Yes, she does. She's not calculated. She's not homogenized. Ask her about her past, and she'll talk about growing up desperately poor in Des Moines, where she briefly indulged in the dark art of shoplifting and spent nights with her brothers and sisters at The Salvation Army.
Little is calculated about Jones. Virtually nothing is phony. She embraces full disclosure, whatever the cost. Much fuss has been made of her distinctive looks, the high cheekbones and the chiseled body she enjoys displaying in magazines, but it's her defiant willingness to reveal her inner turmoil that grabs the hearts of Americans. This relentless honesty is why she's so popular and so reviled.
At times, Jones talks as if she dislikes the spotlight. Never believe her. She adores the never-ending glare. She requires it.
"What's wrong with being famous?" she asked in a voice that reveals her answer to the question.
And so those who enjoy watching the Olympics are blessed with a bonus. She knows her many fans remain fascinated by her even as she realizes her many skeptics wish she would go away.
"I do realize the risk of putting myself out there," she said. "It's going to be crazy if I make the team or don't make the team. Either way is going to create a fire storm. But I'm the way I've always been. I want to go to the Olympics and I want to win a medal and that has never changed."
If she had won an Olympic medal in Beijing, there's no way she would be taking these risks on the hard-packed snow. But she can't walk away from her crusade. She longs for a medal to hang around her neck.
That ninth hurdle has, in a way, been her blessing, and ours. She remains, as always, the center of attention.
Exactly where she belongs.