In the brilliant Baton Rouge sunlight, Lolo Jones is standing with her arms outstretched, a modern Vitruvian woman in a sports bra, bike shorts and slick Oakley shades. Two technicians are buzzing around her, affixing small silvery marker balls to 39 points on her lean, sculpted body. Nearby, on a runway inside the oval at LSU's Bernie Moore Track Stadium, a single lane of hurdles looks more like an outdoor laboratory than an Olympic training ground. It's lined with 40 Vicon motion capture cameras and covered by an Optojump optical movement measuring system that is triggered whenever one of Jones's feet breaks a virtual plane just above the ground. A high-speed Phantom camera is positioned at the first hurdle.
This is an article from the June 25, 2012 issue
As Jones approaches the starting blocks, the three systems kick into gear, and so does the 29-year-old hurdler. "Drive, drive," she whispers to herself, ignoring the half-dozen technicians and coaches monitoring the complex systems. She settles into the blocks and lifts her seat high into the air, and when the recording of a starting gun fires, she takes off.
Each of these runs—and Jones does six on this late-April afternoon—will yield thousands of data points. The markers allow the motion capture cameras to render each run in real time and in three dimensions, employing the same technology used to bring Gollum to life in Lord of the Rings or perfectly mimic Eli Manning's throwing motion in a video game. Simulations of Jones's hurdling can be viewed from any angle, zoomed to any body part, slowed to fractions of a second and dissected and analyzed in mind-blowing detail. Center of mass is no longer a general area; it is a calculable point. Acceleration and velocity are not concepts; they are quantifiable numbers. These are workouts, yes, but they are also experiments.
"I've heard people say that the track athlete with the best scientists usually wins," Jones says. That line once referred to the sport's well-chronicled history of performance-enhancing chemistry, but in this case it's all about biomechanics. Jones and her team have been using the technology since January, and in an event as technical as the 100-meter hurdles the subtlest details in form and technique take on great importance, even for a runner who four years ago at this time was a favorite to win the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics. In a January session, for instance, the models revealed that Jones's hips were not high enough in the starting blocks. She was using unnecessary energy to lift her center of mass after the start. Her coach, Dennis Shaver, deduced that simply by lifting her seat higher in the set position, she would get better power to drive out of the blocks.
Jones keeps herself at arm's distance from all the data, careful not to muddle her mind with too much information. But over the last five months Shaver, who also coached Jones at LSU, has spent countless hours studying it. He has calculated where her foot should be on the track when she launches into the first hurdle. He has examined and adjusted the angle of her lead leg after it clears each hurdle. Much of what he looks for is concrete evidence to back up what he instinctually knows, but there have been some surprises. Shaver found out, for example, that Jones runs fastest on her fourth pass over the hurdles, before fatigue begins to show. That detail has informed her warmup routine. Shaver was shown evidence in January that Jones was swinging her leg slightly out to the side when going over each barrier, a habit the two of them fixed by April. The information has been invaluable, Shaver says.
"Every hurdle is a chance to separate you from the field or make you fall back," Jones says. "And if you can find a small thing that might take off a thousandth of a second, over 10 hurdles, that time adds up.... It's all about the tiniest details."
Just a year ago Jones's idea of data gathering might have been handing a FlipCam to a stranger and kindly asking that he tape her race. The hope is that this technology—a part of Red Bull's Project X, which also funded the construction of a private snowboarding halfpipe for gold medalist Shaun White before the Vancouver Olympics—will give Jones an edge as she tries to qualify for her second Games. Still, even with science behind her, there are no guarantees that she will succeed at this week's U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., particularly given the deep field of women expected to compete in the 100-meter hurdles. Nineteen American women have put up qualifying times this year, and Jones's season best, the 12.75 seconds she ran in Oslo this month, ranks only eighth among them.
How Jones, a media darling with a sharp sense of humor and a rabid Twitter following (120,000 plus), will fare is one of the many questions to be answered over the next two weeks as Team USA roster spots are secured in track, swimming and gymnastics (page 58). Jones has run as fast as 12.43. She is the defending trials champion. To qualify for London, however, she will need to finish in the top three in Eugene, which will mean beating, among others, Kellie Wells, Kristi Castlin—both of whom have run sub-12.60 times this year—or Dawn Harper, who won gold in Beijing, the medal Jones would have earned had it not been for that second-to-last hurdle.
Jones has had to clear plenty of obstacles on her way to becoming a track star. She grew up poor; her father, James, was in and out of prison and her mother, Lori, struggled to find work. Jones and her family moved around central Iowa when they could no longer pay rent and once briefly called the basement of a Des Moines Salvation Army home. Her father taught her not only how to run but also how to shoplift; by sixth grade, she says, she could easily steal up to four frozen dinners from the grocery store. It wasn't until she found track that Jones discovered a way out. Running gave her stability in high school, afforded her a college education, granted her the opportunity to travel the globe and to compete on the world's biggest stage. Yet she still is haunted by that one race in Beijing.
Jones doesn't particularly enjoy reliving the 2008 Olympic final. But she has seen replays of the race, watched her lead foot clip the ninth hurdle and jolt her back from first to seventh place. She cannot be sure what went wrong; it could have been any number of things. But her doctor's theory is that it was an early manifestation of tethered spinal cord syndrome, a congenital neurological disorder that limits the movement of the spinal cord. After Beijing, Jones was hitting hurdles in races more often and experiencing debilitating back pain, which led her to see Dr. Robert Bray, a neurological spine surgeon based in Los Angeles. Bray recognized a telling symptom of the disorder: the loss of position sense in her feet. Essentially, Jones was running without knowing exactly where her toes were. An MRI revealed the condition, and last August, Bray operated on her back.
"It was super hard for me to rebound," Jones says. "It was hard for me to get in and out of bed, and walking to the bathroom was about the most I could do for about a month."
The steps back to elite form were slow and arduous. "The first goal they gave me was to walk for 15 minutes," she says. "I was like, Are you kidding me? Fifteen minutes? I am an Olympic athlete. Give me a break!
"And that's when I tried to walk down my driveway, and I could not walk back into my house," she says, laughing. "So at that point, it was like, All right, we are definitely at ground zero."
Over the next several months Jones worked tirelessly to regain her stride and quickly found it, winning her first race back in January, the 50-meter hurdles at the U.S. Open at Madison Square Garden. She seemed well positioned to make the team for London, but a right hamstring injury sustained late in the indoor season derailed her once again. After she had worked so hard to recover from the spinal cord surgery, the relatively minor setback pushed her to a breaking point.
"I had no energy to tap into," she says. "The well was empty.... I was devastated about the hamstring injury. Even though I knew I'd have plenty of time before trials, it was just like, gosh, another hurdle."
Because of the injury, Jones started her outdoor season a bit late, competing in her first race just four weeks ago. (She ran a 12.95 at the Golden Spike meet in Ostrava, Czech Republic.) Shaver, however, believed she would need only a handful of races to be ready for the trials.
London may well be the place she finds redemption, but first there is Eugene. After all the obstacles Jones has faced, these trials still represent, perhaps fittingly, the second-to-last hurdle on her road to that elusive Olympic medal.