BEIJING -- To be the champion, you have to clear all 10 hurdles. That's the mantra LoLo Jones kept reciting to reporters between tears after she hit the ninth barrier in the Olympic final of the 100-meter hurdles, and fell from first to seventh in the last steps of the race.
As soon she hit the hurdle with her lead leg, Jones' face morphed from the picture of composure to a visage of strain. She leaned desperately toward the finish while a wave of competitors washed over her. Her compatriot Dawn Harper flew by and won in 12.54.
Jones had the third-slowest reaction time to the gun in the field, and after the race said she may have stepped on the gas a little too much early in the race in an effort to catch up. By midway, she had a clear lead. "The hurdles were just coming up too fast and I lost control," she said. "It's like driving a race car. You go into a curve and you either maintain control or you crash and burn. Today I crashed and burned."
As she coasted past the line ahead of only one competitor, Jones thrust her arms down in disgust, as if discarding the performance. Then she got down on her knees on the track and put her head in her hands.
The lost gold seemed all the more tragic in light of Jones' made-for-NBC story, which has done its rounds through the American press in the lead up to her race. Prior to college, the 26-year-old LSU grad bounced from apartment to apartment in Des Moines, Iowa, with her single mother and four siblings. At one point, the family lived in the basement of a church, a situation Jones hid whenever possible.
As far as clearing hurdles goes, Jones seems to have written the book. But you have to clear all 10 on the right day, "or you you're not meant to be champion," Jones said. "Tonight, I wasn't meant to be champion.
Jones wasn't the only American to be close enough to gold to taste it, and yet to come up short.
Following a stellar Monday for U.S. track -- gold in the women's discus, silver in the women's pole vault and a medal sweep in the men's 400-meter hurdles -- Sanya Richards, who entered the 400 with the third fastest time in the world (49.86) and the second fastest in the field, tied up with about 80 meters left and slipped from first to third, with a time of 49.93.
Richards exploded out of the blocks and took a definitive lead early in the race, but started to slow heading into the final straight, as she was passed by Great Britain's Christine Ohuruogu, the eventual winner, and Jamaica's Shericka Williams, who took silver.
After the race, Richards said that she felt her hamstring cramp with 80 meters left, spoiling the excitement she said she was already beginning to feel as she rounded the final curve and headed for gold. "I don't want to tell you what I'm feeling right now," she said, "because it isn't positive."
Following one of the greatest seasons ever by a 400-meter runner in 2006, in which she set the American record (48.70) and ran the five fastest times in the world, Richards has been disappointed at major championships. In the run up to '07 World Championships, Richards was ranked first in the world in the 400 and second in the 200, but she failed to make the U.S. team, and then finished fifth at Worlds in the 200.
Richards, 23, attributed the sudden dip in her performance to Behcet's syndrome, a disease she was told she had last spring. The immune disorder causes skin lesion and painful mouth ulcers.
"I feel betrayed by my body again," Richards said after the 400 final. "I have really strong faith," she continued, "and I feel like everything happens for a reason. I just don't know what this one is ... I don't know what lesson I have left to learn."