Lolo Jones discusses her road to a fourth Olympics and the medal that has eluded her.
At 35 years old, Lolo Jones’ dreams of winning an Olympic medal are still alive. The two-time Summer Olympian and 2014 Winter Olympian is looking to be one of three women picked to push bobsleds at the 2018 Games in PyeongChang.
Jones is best known for her success as a hurdler in track and field. She was a favorite to win gold in the 100 meter hurdles at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing before she clipped the penultimate hurdle and she stumbled to the finish. She also competed at the 2012 Olympics in London and finished fourth, just .01 seconds out of the medals. She withdrew from the 2016 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials due to injury and was unable to compete in Rio de Janeiro. She bypassed the 2017 track and field season, where she would have made more money than in bobsled, to prepare for the Winter Olympics.
She finished 11th in Sochi when she was paired with pilot Jazmine Fenlator. But four years later, she’s been vocal about the state of United States bobsledding women being the best they have ever been, so her competition to get to South Korea is not as easy.
Sports Illustrated caught up with Jones in New York City with 100 days to go until the Games begin. Jones will open her World Cup season on Friday night in Park City, Utah and will be paired with Elana Meyers Taylor.
SI: We’ve crossed paths many times over the years trackside. Bobsled isn’t my bread and butter and to many other people it isn’t either, so could you break down the qualification process for the next few months?
Lolo Jones: We’ve already started the process. We had the push championships in Calgary, Canada and I got second there. Then we underwent a series of in-house tests including a 30-meter sprint and some weightlifting tests. We got numbers on all of those. Now we’re in the final part where we start racing. Within those races, we’ll get more numbers and evaluate from there. It’s different from track and field. In track, we have the U.S. Olympic Trials where it’s top three and you go to the Games. This is a very different situation because there’s multiple chances for you to get numbers. It’s never just top three and you’ve got a spot. They’re taking a cumulative season of numbers. So it’s as if you’re taking all of your races from a track and field season and then comparing it against somebody else’s races to try and figure out who would be your best athlete.
SI: That sounds like it could get controversial.
LJ: I’m glad you said it because it is. When I really try to break it down for a track and field athlete, I always say that it’s similar to how they pick the 4x100-meter relay team. As you’ve seen in past years, the team has been named and everyone is comfortable with who is on it but then there’s also been times when athletes have been named and people go “Hmmm…” Whenever it’s not a secure top three, anything can happen. But the thing with bobsled is that you can’t have a race where everyone gets numbers at the same time so you know it’s equal. We compete on ice. Conditions on that surface can change within minutes. Even if you have two people go back-to-back, the second person could be faster but the first person may have better results because the ice changes. That’s how crazy the sport is.
It really takes a series of numbers and just trying to process with the coaches. You have to trust that they’re going to make the best decision to put the best team forward to win medals. I’ve been on the other side of things too. There’s been two times for bobsled that I’ve made the national team but then missed out on the world championships at the end of the season. It’s wild. The coin can flip either way. This sport tries my faith more than any other sport. In track and field, it comes down to me and numbers. In bobsled, there’s so many things that you need to be well-versed on and being a good teammate is one of them.
SI: It’s not like you’ve made the process easier the second time around. You gave bobsled a try and then some other track and field athletes have tried their hand at the sport.
LJ: I know, right! It was stupid of me to do that! I wasn’t aware of this but the other day some of the men on the national team did an autograph session and they were asked how they heard about bobsled. Ryan Bailey [2012 U.S. Olympic 100m dash finalist] and Chris Kinney said that it was because of me. I try to bring attention and awareness to the sport and maybe it hurts me on the women’s side. It hurt me for Sochi because it helped recruit Lauryn [Williams] and she ended up getting promoted to the sled that medaled. I wasn’t but when I look back at my Olympic career, I want to be able to say that I competed against the best and won a medal against the best.
In my London race, which everyone gives me crap about, even though I came back from surgery, to this day it’s the fastest Olympic final in history. Even Rio, which the American women swept, my time at the London Games would’ve got me a medal at any Olympic final ever. I don’t have a medal to show my kids but I went down in one of the fastest Olympic races in history so the same goes for bobsled. I’m cool with recruiting people even if it bites me in the butt but I’m confident in my abilities to compete. I’m a warrior. I have assured determination and grit so I say bring it.
SI: Why does the translation from track to bobsled work for some athletes but not for others?
LJ: There have been some track and field athletes that have tried it and fizzled out. The explanation for that is it’s a very hard sport. In track, we head to the track and carry a backpack and do our workout before calling it a day. In bobsled, we’re out there for hours. It’s cold. It’s miserable. We have bobsled practice but then have to go and take care of the bobsled. It’s 12-hour days with a lot of travel. In track, the prize purse can sometimes be $10,000 for a race if you win. In bobsled, you’d be one of the top athletes if you made that for a full season with months of working.
When you have some track and field athletes come and tell them, I’m going to need you to work longer hours, you’ll take a pay cut and it’s a harder dynamic, it’s a lot. Throw in also the risk of injury. We’re flying down these tracks. You can crash and there’s a concussion risk. Every time you step to the line, there can be a little bit of fear and it gets in people’s way. There’s so many different elements but sometimes maybe they just don’t like it.
SI: You also have to put on weight for it.
LJ: They’ll like that part. (Laughs) That’s the reason why I came back!
SI: Break it down for me. How much are you eating?
LJ: 9,000 calories is what I was taking in when I was in a time crunch to gain weight. This time, I’m already at weight. I didn’t run track this year so that I could have that time to gain weight. I take a weight gainer twice a day and then usually have two dinners separated by two hours. Here’s the weird thing: My breakfast and lunch are quite normal. I just try to have more milk throughout the day too. If I can’t get protein or weight gainer, you may see me chugging milk.
SI: That still sounds so tough to handle.
LJ: It is. I feel sorry for my roommate with me always in the bathroom. I’m so tired of always running to the bathroom.
SI: Is the plan still to go back to track after all of this?
LJ: Yeah, I’m going right back. It was a little frustrating when people assume that I’ve retired but I never made that announcement. I think I really could’ve ran last year. During bobsled season, they allowed me to train and still go to the track and do hurdles. I was hurdling for part of the bobsled season. I discussed things with Paul Doyle, my track and field agent, and my coaches. They said that it would be a close race to try and make this bobsled team. The girls are really close and it’s hard to separate the numbers. For me, I had to make the decision to give up one of my last prime years in track and field to compete at the world championships in London, which I would’ve loved to have returned to. I decided to put it all on the line to take one last stab at this Winter Olympic medal. I said Winter. Who knows? I could do the Gail Devers and go through to 2020 but let’s not go there yet.
It pained me to watch the world championships. Especially to see Sally Pearson and Dawn Harper-Nelson as the two old heads coming in with medals and I knew they would. They relied on their experience at that stage, especially since it was the Olympic track. It was frustrating to see that those were people I’ve been competing against throughout my career and I could’ve been right there. I had to give it up. At the end of the day, another world championship medal was going to do nothing for my career. I’m a two-time world champion. I’m the American record holder for indoors. I get teased all the time that I need to win a medal. I’m like ‘Wait, I’m actually a world champion in track and field and bobsled.’ It happens all the time. I’m going for it. If I fall on my face, I’m content knowing I left it all out there.
SI: OK, we’ve done many of these interviews, and the same goes for people who follow you on social media, you always bring up this lack of an Olympic medal. You’re cracking jokes sometimes but mentally how have you dealt with it over the years?
LJ: I joke about it but honestly, I’ve gone through stages in my career. I’ve always been a self-deprecating person and that’s my humor. I think too many times people try to shy away from what may be painful experiences for them. This doesn’t burn me anymore. I didn’t win an Olympic medal but I’ve had an amazing journey with great sponsors. Not to go super bobsled on you but in Cool Runnings, John Candy says, “If you're not enough without the medal, you'll never be enough with it.”
SI: Last thing, I’m going to give you a chance now to fire back at Sports Illustrated for that Fittest 50 list that we released a few months ago. You tweeted at me that it was wrong. Explain it to me.
LJ: That was terrible.
SI: What was the problem with it?
LJ: What was the problem?! Don’t make me cuss in this interview. If I went through the list again, I could pinpoint things to you. The numbers were wack. They should’ve been re-shuffled but even that wouldn’t fix the issue. I looked at some of the people ahead of me and said, ‘I’m killing myself with two jobs!’ And then, you put me down at No. 49?!