On the Right Track: From Olympic Downfall to Finding Forgiveness and the Strength to Overcome and Succeedby Marion Jones
For more than a decade, Marion Jones was hailed as the “the fastest woman on the planet.” At the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, she became the first woman ever to win five medals at one Olympics. That same year, the Associated Press and ESPN named her Athlete of the Year. She was on the cover of Vogue and Time. She seemed to have/i>/i>… See more details below
For more than a decade, Marion Jones was hailed as the “the fastest woman on the planet.” At the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, she became the first woman ever to win five medals at one Olympics. That same year, the Associated Press and ESPN named her Athlete of the Year. She was on the cover of Vogue and Time. She seemed to have it all—fame, fortune, talent, and international acclaim. Now she is a convicted felon.
The trouble started in 2003 when she lied to federal agents about her use of a performance-enhancing drug and her knowledge of a check fraud scam. In 2007, no longer able to live with the lies, she admitted the truth. In a sad end to what seemed like a storybook career, she was stripped of her medals, and her track-and-field records were wiped from the books.
She was incarcerated at Carswell federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas—a prison known for its violence and abuse. While there, she kept herself in shape and her sanity intact by running on a dirt track and a treadmill in the prison’s improvised weight room. But her imprisonment was not the end for Marion Jones. In fact, it marked a new beginning. She is now using her story to change the lives of people the world over and inspire others who, like her, face obstacles that seem insurmountable.
On the Right Track is the candidly told story of how Marion came to grips with her lies and the consequences of her actions, and how she found meaning in all of it. What she tells her children and has now applied to her own life is that when you make a mistake, you admit it, you accept the consequences, you move on, you make the wrong a right. She teaches her children and others to take a break and pause before making impulsive and potentially harmful decisions.
At the heart of this book are real issues that we all face: learning to grow through pain; making decisions that will help us far into the future; overcoming failure and discouragement; and applying practical principles that point the way to personal and spiritual breakthrough.
“Marion's story is a powerful, poignant reminder to us all that being true to yourself provides the power required to achieve success, endure profound failure, and be successful again."
"A forthright account of one athlete’s dizzying rise to fame, her precipitous fall, and the unexpected ramifications of both journeys."
- Howard Books
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- 5.60(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.60(d)
Read an Excerpt
CHAPTER 1THE WAY BACK
As the cameras clicked and the videotapes rolled, I stepped up to a battalion of microphones stationed in front of the West-chester County Federal Courthouse in White Plains, New York. It was Friday, October 5, 2007, an unseasonably warm day. The treetops swayed with occasional gusts of wind. There was a long ribbon of people across the street, shouting “We love you, Marion.” I didn’t know any of them, but they were like angels sent from God to wrap their wings around me on one of the lowest days of my life.
My mother, other relatives, and close supporters stood behind me and around me like sturdy pillars. A swarm of reporters and photographers was arrayed on the steps of the brick-faced courthouse, all jockeying for spots near the microphones.
Moments earlier, I had been inside the building, standing before U.S. District Judge Kenneth Karas. Karas is a bespectacled man with a shock of brown hair and a stern, hard-nosed manner. His courtroom looked like something straight out of a legal drama, with wood-paneled walls, pews, and a sign above the judge’s head that said “In God We Trust.” It was filled to capacity with journalists from around the world. The proceeding was televised on closed-circuit television to a nearby overflow room.
I was stoic and scared at the same time. I pled guilty to two charges: lying in 2003 to federal investigators about my use of a performance-enhancing drug and lying to them about my knowledge of a separate check fraud case. In my guilty plea, I told the court that in September 2000, before the Sydney Olympic Games, a former coach first gave me a substance he told me was flaxseed oil. As it turned out, the “flaxseed oil” was a performance-enhancing drug (PED) now known as “the clear.”
My eyes never strayed from Judge Karas’s face. Whenever he uttered the ramifications of my guilty plea, using words like “prison,” “felony,” or “punishment,” I simply said, “Yes, I understand.” As he spoke, I thought of the shame I’d brought on my family, the sport of track and field, my former teammates, and my many supporters. I knew I’d spend a very long time trying to make up for the damage I’d caused.
Judge Karas said he wanted to schedule my sentencing hearing for January fourth. I leaned over to my attorneys and whispered that January fourth was my mother’s birthday. They politely requested a different date. The judge complied and set my sentencing date for January 11, 2008.
The hearing lasted just thirty minutes. Judge Karas banged his gavel, and the courtroom cleared.
I was not only in emotional pain, but physical pain too. I was still breast-feeding my second son, Amir, who was home in Austin being cared for by my husband Obadele Thompson. I had packed my breast pump in my suitcase so I could pump milk and not become engorged, but a piece of the pump broke off during the trip. The pump wouldn’t work, so I couldn’t pump any milk. My breasts got so engorged that I thought they might explode. They started leaking. By the end of the hearing, my pink blouse, hidden thankfully under my dark pinstriped suit, was soaked with breast milk. My breasts hurt so much that it was painful to hug people.
Outside the courtroom, a crush of people awaited my statement, which I had written in the days leading up to my courtroom appearance. I took a deep breath. I did my best to make eye contact with all who were there.
“Good afternoon, everyone. I am Marion Jones-Thompson, and I am here today because I have something very important to tell you, my fans, my friends, and my family.
“Over the many years of my life as an athlete in the sport of track and field, you have been fiercely loyal and supportive towards me. Even more loyal and supportive than words can declare has been my family, and especially my dear mother, who stands by my side today.”
I felt like crying, and then I did cry. I choked back the sobs, but I could not hold back the tears. I was wracked with humiliation and then by free-floating remorse. I paused to regain my composure.
“And so it is with a great amount of shame that I stand before you and tell you that I have betrayed your trust,” I continued, bowing my head briefly. “I want all you to know that today I pled guilty to two counts of making false statements to federal agents.
“Making these false statements to federal agents was an incredibly stupid thing for me to do, and I am fully responsible for my actions. I have no one to blame but myself for what I have done.
“To you, my fans—including my young supporters—the United States Track and Field Association, my closest friends, my attorneys, and the most classy family a person could ever hope for—namely my mother, my husband, my children, my brother and his family, my uncle, and the rest of my extended family: I want you to know that I have been dishonest. And you have the right to be angry with me.”
By then I was sobbing so hard I could barely catch my breath. I bit my lip and went on.
“I have let them down. I have let my country down. And I have let myself down.
“I recognize that by saying that I’m deeply sorry, it might not be enough and sufficient to address the pain and the hurt that I have caused you. Therefore, I want to ask for your forgiveness for my actions, and I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.
“I have asked Almighty God for forgiveness.
“Having said this, and because of my actions, I am retiring from the sport of track and field, a sport which I deeply love.”
My voice was cracking and tears streamed down my face.
“I promise that these events will be used to help make the lives of others improve, to show that making the wrong choices and bad decisions can be disastrous.
“I want to thank you all for your time.”
I could see the hands clapping, but I barely heard the applause.
The calm strength I had tried to display in the courtroom was gone, washed away by a flood of tears. I embraced my mother and cried. We then threaded through the throng, climbed into an awaiting car with both of my attorneys, Hill Allen and Henry DePippo, and drove away without taking any questions.
But for me, questions remained. What would be my punishment? Would I go to jail? I prayed not. My young children and husband needed me.
My ordeal was what the media would call a “stunning fall from grace.” For more than a decade, I had been hailed as the “the fastest woman on the planet.” At the 2000 Olympic Games, I became the first woman ever to win five medals at one Olympics. That same year, the Associated Press and ESPN named me “Athlete of the Year.” I was on the cover of Vogue, Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated. I seemed to have it all—fame, fortune, talent, and international acclaim. Now it was gone—all of it, because I had exercised bad judgment, made bad decisions, and lied about it all when it was absolutely essential to tell the truth.
We drove away from the courthouse in silence. I rested my head against the seat back and stared vacantly out the window. There is an old African proverb that goes something like this: “A concealed disease can’t be healed.” Confession is always good for the soul. Deep down, I knew that my confession was the beginning of the healing process for me.
For most of us, the words “I’m sorry” are the two hardest words to say. I know they are for me. I used to assume that if I apologized, I’d show weakness. But it is just the opposite. I believe that most people appreciate honesty and the courage it takes to admit your own mistakes and failings. When I travel around the country now, people approach and tell me that they don’t think they could have done what I did—admit that I had made mistakes and lied about it—because it’s hard for them to own up to their wrongs privately, let alone do so publicly in front of the whole world. If we truly want or need forgiveness, we’ll need to apologize. Apology begins the process of healing, correction, and restoration.
Events leading up to my downfall began four years earlier, in November 2003 . . .
It began when I was subpoenaed by a federal grand jury in San Francisco to testify as a witness in a federal investigation—the now infamous Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO) case—which was looking into, among other things, illegal steroid distribution.
In early September 2003, the feds raided the BALCO facilities and confiscated containers of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs)—steroids, human growth hormone, synthetic testosterone—and files with the names of several professional athletes.
In June 2003, a coach anonymously sent a syringe containing traces of an unknown substance to the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) for analysis. In August 2003, the USADA commissioned a renowned expert in performance-enhancing drugs to analyze the substance. He determined that the substance in the syringe was, in fact, a performance-enhancing drug known as THG. Because THG was undetectable in drug tests commonly administered to athletes, it was labeled “the clear.”
Essentially, if athletes ingested THG, their urine would be “clear,” and the drug would not show up in the test results. Apparently, “the clear” was one of the substances confiscated during the federal government’s raid of the BALCO labs.
As a result of the raid, the federal grand jury in San Francisco subpoenaed some forty athletes, including me, baseball superstars Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi, several NFL players, and others to testify about BALCO and seek evidence to determine if the company was a front for an illegal steroid-distribution ring catering to elite athletes. My former boyfriend, then 100-meter world-record holder Tim Montgomery, was also scheduled to appear before the grand jury.
After I was served with my subpoena, my attorneys, Rich Nichols and Joe Burton, spent three eight-hour sessions prepping me for what the AUSA, the federal investigator, and up to twenty-four grand jurors, composed of citizens selected from voter registration, driver’s license, and tax lists, might ask me. My attorneys, Joe and Rich, are long-time, trusted friends who specialize in white-collar defense and legal management. They both impressed upon me that a federal grand jury appearance is “serious stuff.” You never know what questions will be fired at you. The grand jury system by its nature is highly secretive, and everyone fears it. Above all, you MUST tell the truth!
Ten days prior to my scheduled grand jury appearance, Rich and Joe made a strategic decision. They reached out to the government and offered to present me to the AUSA and the federal investigator for a pre-grand jury appearance interview. The purpose: to have an opportunity to see what information the government possessed prior to my grand jury appearance and to get a feel for the questions the government might ask me in the grand jury. The risk with such an interview: if you lie to the AUSA and the federal agent during the interview, you could be prosecuted for lying to them and you can be sent to jail.
So, to encourage truth telling during these interviews, the government gives witnesses like me one-day immunity in the form of an agreement called a “queen for a day” letter. Essentially, this letter is a written agreement between federal prosecutors and individuals that permits these individuals to be questioned by the federal agents not under oath and without the risk of being prosecuted for anything the witness tells the government during the interview. Thus, under this procedure, no matter what you tell them, they can’t use what you tell them during the interview to prosecute you, ever.
But here’s the catch: You can’t lie during a queen-for-a-day session, because making false statements to federal agents, even if not under oath, is a felony offense. You must tell the truth, or risk prosecution for lying. My attorneys explained this to me, over and over.
The feds rarely grant queen-for-a-day sessions, but they did in my case. These sessions are risky business, but we were relieved when the government granted our request to meet with them at the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose.
On that early November morning, my attorneys and I walked into the windowed conference room, with its magnificent panorama of San Jose’s sprawl. The room was elegantly neutral with beige walls, finely upholstered chairs, and a carved mahogany table neatly set with bottled water. I didn’t know what to expect. What did they want from me? What do they think I know? I was nervous, very nervous.
We had been in the conference room for several minutes when I heard the click of the door handle. Striding into the conference room, the assistant U.S. attorney (the AUSA) and the federal agent Jeff Novitsky looked like infantry soldiers prepared to do battle. Novitsky was a six-foot, six-inch, lanky former college basketball player from California with a glistening white bald head. He had initiated the government’s probe into an illegal steroid distribution case and had a reputation for badgering witnesses. They took their seats directly across from Rich, Joe, and me.
The interview started out on a perfunctory note, inquisition style, but not long into the meeting, I began to feel the ooze of provocation and hostility seeping from them.
Novitsky had a brownish leather duffle bag on the floor next to his chair. For two and a half hours, he’d pull documents from the bag and shove them across the table at me. With each document, he’d say, “Do you recognize this?” His speech became increasingly clipped and rapid.
I’d respond “no” in a practiced voice, one trained to stay calm and confident in the face of accusation and allegation. I didn’t feel like I had anything to hide. As the meeting progressed, I could tell they didn’t believe me. They’d ask me the same question over and over, but in different ways. The less my information satisfied them, the more frustrated they got.
Then Novitsky reached into the duffle bag and retrieved two plastic baggies. In one of the baggies was a vial of liquid that looked like light olive oil, in the other, an unlabeled tube of cream. He dangled the baggie with the vial in front of me. “Do you recognize this?
When I saw the substance, of course it could have been anything—the oil I cook with, the oil I used to get from pricking vitamin E capsules to apply on my pimples as a teenager, anything. But I wondered if it was THG, “the clear,” that everyone had been talking about in the news.
From across the table, Novitsky stared at me, contemptuous and unblinking. I had one of those “Oh my God” moments and figured out that yes, it was the clear—a liquid that I believed to be flaxseed oil when I had taken it in September 2000, before and following the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.
I got a deep, cold feeling inside. Admitting I had used it would be disastrous. My mind at that instant was a snapshot of everything I stood to lose if I revealed the truth—my child’s future, my reputation, my earning power, my athletic career. I decided to lie—and lie willingly.
“No sir, I don’t recognize it.”
He shook the baggie in front of my face. “You mean to tell me you don’t know what this is?”
I lied again. “No, I do not.”
Novitsky glowered at me. “Have you ever taken performance-enhancing drugs?”
“No, I have not.” Another lie.
“Have you ever taken a performance-enhancing drug known as ‘the clear’?”
I swallowed hard and lied again. “No.”
Novitsky abruptly stood up and angrily shook the baggie again. “I know you know something.” His tenacity struck me as comparable to that of a pit bull that had been taunted.
At that point, Joe Burton quickly leaned his fireplug of a body forward. With furrowed eyebrows that peered over his wire-rimmed glasses, he called time out. Rich, a wiry bundle of intelligence and energy, stood up first, signaling his solidarity with Joe. The four men hustled outside the conference room and closed the door.
I shifted in my chair, allowed my shoulders to sink an inch or two, and stared into nothingness. I sold myself on my lies, for the same reasons that a lot of people do: I had done something wrong, I did not want to be found out, and I was frightened of the consequences and repercussions if the truth was revealed. I could not steel-cage my fear. I was frightened at a level more primal than I would have imagined. I feared that my life and the life of my young son, Monty, would be forever changed if the truth were known. I feared losing my athletic career—all I had ever known—and I was too insecure to believe that I could do anything else with my life outside of running track. Lying was a form of self-protection. All the hard work and the sacrifices I had made since I was a kid would be gone in the blink of a moment if I told the truth. I couldn’t let that happen. My answers were not going to change.
Thirty seconds later, the men filed back into the conference room. The questioning resumed, and tension still hung in the air.
In forced, overdetermined civility, Novitsky asked me again, “Look a little closer. Do you know what this is?”
“No sir, I do not know what it is.”
And then, as abruptly as we began, we were done.
When the session was over, I found myself in the precarious position of having lied to the U.S. attorney and to the federal agent about recognizing the substance they showed me. I did recognize it. And I had made that lie even worse by continuing to lie even when I put the pieces together in a flash while sitting in that conference room. What I had been given as a nutritional supplement was, indeed, “the clear,” or THG.
When people ask me, “How could you unknowingly take a performance-enhancing drug?” The answer boils down to the trust factor between athletes and coaches. If a coach comes to an athlete and says, “Take this nutritional supplement; it might help your performance,” you do it. You trust your coach implicitly.
You have to understand that as an elite, world-class athlete, competing at the highest levels, you rely on your coach to be your ultimate caretaker. Your coach prescribes your training programs, nutritional supplements, competition schedules, advice with regard to general nutrition, physical therapy, and rest and recovery.
As an athlete who has had coaches all my life, I learned early on that you just don’t question your coach, ever. The best way to alienate coaches is to complain about their recommendations. Coaches are like a mother, father, big brother, best friend—all in one. They’re dedicated to you, and so you run through the proverbial wall for them every day—in training and practice and in every competition during the season.
In the months that followed, I thought my lie would settle quietly in my mind and, like a bad dream, fade away, but I was wrong. Lies don’t go away, and I could not run from mine. Left uncorrected, lies have a way of getting bigger and taking on a life of their own. More lies are told, or the truth remains hidden to protect the lies already told.
Some people might say: “It’s no big deal; everybody lies.” Well then, how come when we are lied to, we generally feel betrayed and outraged? Because the longer a lie goes unchecked, the more a person’s character is called into question when the truth is revealed.
A lie usually ends up hurting the person who told it more than anyone else. There are always consequences to lying, and they certainly can be unpleasant and even ugly. If you lie on a job application, your employer may be mad, but it is your career and your reputation that is hurt. If you lie to a friend or your family, your relationship with them is damaged, and the trust they had in you disappears and is extremely difficult to get back again. If you lie about large issues like I did—something like a crime or legal offense—you may be painfully punished, and it is hard to heal.
I learned the hard way that it’s always better to tell the truth. That may seem like advice my little Monty hears in kindergarten, but the fact is that a huge percentage of us are too comfortable with lying in many ways. When we are deceitful like I was, deceit has a habit of coming back to haunt us, and in these situations, we are worse off than if we had just come clean in the first place—as uncomfortable as that might have seemed at the time. Lying rarely ever achieves what we hope it will. Somewhere, sometime, someone will find out, and then we have to deal with the hurt, anger, and pain that usually follow.
Another thing I’ve learned about lies is what they want: they want out. The truth is like a beach ball being held under water. It will go down, but it won’t stay under. It constantly tries to rise to the surface. Keeping truth submerged robs a person of integrity, credibility, confidence, peace, and self-esteem.
I had even ensnared people who trusted me into my web of lies—and unknowingly, they lied for me. “She has never taken performance-enhancing drugs, not now, not ever,” Rich Nichols once declared in a statement to the media.
Looking back, I didn’t love myself enough to tell the truth. I thought I was hiding a lie, but really my lie was hiding me. I was too focused on what I did rather than who God created me to be. What we do is important, but what we do ultimately emanates from who we are. I’ve since learned to spend more time on building my character than on building my athletic skills. We can be much more successful in the long run if our skills are high and our character is even higher.
To this day, I still say to myself, “If only I had told the truth . . .” I know now that it’s better to be honest and accept responsibility the way you’d take care of a training injury: fast, thoroughly, with no messing around. This means fully admitting a mistake, apologizing to anyone you may have harmed by your actions, and making any amends you possibly can.
There are the times in our lives when we know we are making the wrong choice. In my case, I wish I had taken a break that day in the Fairmont Hotel conference room, cleared my mind, analyzed my options with my attorneys, and told the truth—in other words, I wish I had done the right thing and gotten on the right track.
The consequences of my actions would never leave me. For a few years, though, it felt as if my life were returning to a semblance of normal. But it wasn’t, not really.
© 2010 Marion Jones
CHAPTER 2A LIFE OF TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY
For those of you who know me, I suppose you can fast-forward through the next few paragraphs, but for those who don’t, I am Marion Jones, and I have lived a life of triumph and tragedy.
I was born in 1975 in Los Angeles, the daughter of George Jones—who was a businessman—and Marion, a hardworking legal secretary who had moved to the United States from Belize in 1968 at age twenty-two. I have one brother, Albert Kelly. Albert is five years older than me. I look up to him. He is my great and lasting hero, and we have always been close. Albert has always believed in me.
I was around four years old when my father walked out and abandoned our family. He and my mom divorced, and the three of us were on our own. Thereafter, George spurned my attempts to be a part of his life. My brother did his best to fill the void as the only man in the house when we were young.
Back then, I was young and could not understand everything. There was a lot of pain and confusion in my heart, and I did not know how to deal with it properly. So, over the next few years, I started acting out and getting in trouble at school. My mom tried her best with me, but I was definitely a handful. At that time, I couldn’t appreciate how much sacrifice she made for my brother and me. We were not poor, but we were very aware of how hard our mom worked to give us the things we needed and some of things we wanted. My mom worked two jobs to have enough money to provide for us. And she would often drive over an hour and a half between her job, our school, and home. She loved me, but in many ways, that love was overshadowed by the lack of real love from my biological father.
As a spunky five-year-old, I started chasing Albert around the neighborhood. It took not only speed, but my outrageous competitive nature to keep up with him and his pals, who didn’t want to have anything to do with me. They considered me a pest. But finally, they gave in and let me play in their games, races, and other sports.
Mom married a wonderful man named Ira Toler, and we settled in a growing suburb of Los Angeles called Palmdale, California. Albert and I finally learned about the stability of a two-parent home. Ira took us to school, to baseball practice, and to gymnastics. He was the type of father who would bring McDonald’s to my school at lunch time and have dinner ready for us every night. A retired military chef, he was a great cook and we always had delicious leftovers. You couldn’t find a better individual, a better human being, a better father than Ira Toler. When he smiled, he grabbed a piece of your heart.
A defining moment for me occurred in 1984, when the Summer Olympics came to Los Angeles. I was eight years old. Ira drove me to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to see the parade for the opening ceremonies. I saw the torch and felt this wonderful excitement mounting because the Olympics were going to start and the best athletes in the world were there.
I watched the rest of the Olympics at home with my parents on television. By the end, I was enthralled with track and field. When I saw the athletes actually cross the finish line, the excitement in their faces, and the glimmer in their eyes, I wanted to feel whatever was causing that expression. I wanted that experience.
My mom and Ira hung a chalkboard in my room for my homework. I erased all those homework assignments and instead wrote on the board that I would become an Olympic champion someday.
That’s the can-do spirit with which my mother raised us. Anything you wanted in life, you wrote it down. You thought about it, you believed it, and then you went out and did whatever it took to accomplish it. She taught us that you can achieve what you believe.
After competing against my brother and his friends for so long, racing against girls my own age was nothing. I began entering competitions at the age of ten and won everything. That’s when I began to believe I had something very special.
For a school assignment, I wrote my first biography on the ruled lines of my homework paper. It went something like this: “Hi, my name is Marion Jones. I’m five feet two inches. I am ten years old and in the sixth grade. I think I have a nice personality. I have pretty good grades and my weight is eighty-five pounds. My hobbies are running and gymnastics. I like running because I can beat almost everyone at my school. I like gymnastics because I can do all sort of tricks and I’m very flexible in some ways. My plans for the future are to be in the 1992 Olympics. I’ve been training a lot, and the boys at my school are good practice. I know if I don’t get in the Olympics, I have to have a backup. So I plan to be an electrical engineer like my uncle.”
One morning in 1985, when I was in school, the phone rang in the classroom, and my teacher told me, “Marion, your mother is up front. She’s taking you home.” Mom told me that when she’d returned from dropping me off at school, Ira had been lying on the ground. She’d called an ambulance. Ira had had a stroke.
I don’t know how long he stayed alive—a day and a half or so. At that time, the hospital didn’t allow minor children in to see critically ill patients. I was ten. I was so upset that Mom promised she’d persuade the nurse to sneak me in. But it never happened. I never saw Ira again, except at his funeral. Ira’s death was one of the saddest experiences of my life.
Sports were a way to cope and gave me a chance to realize myself as a person. I eventually became one of California’s top high school basketball players and sprinters. I had wonderful coaches along the way—Geoff Jarvis, Al Walker, Wise, Mel Sims, Art Green, Charles Brown, and Elliot Mason. They all have a special place in my heart. From them, I learned discipline, patience, focus, cooperation, and the ideals of good sportsmanship—the fundamentals required to become a champion. I grew up to be five feet ten, which was taller than almost everyone I knew.
At the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials for the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games, I finished fourth in the 200 meters and sixth in the 100 meters, and I qualified as an alternate for the 400-meter relay team. I was sixteen. My mom and I didn’t think I was quite ready for the Olympics, though. I wanted to earn my own gold medal through sweat and hard work, not get one just for running in a relay preliminary. I decided not to go. I took college prep math classes at a local university instead.
Basketball was my other sport, and I was the California Division I player of the year as a high school senior. Hundreds of colleges recruited me, most of them for track only. I chose the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill because they would let me play basketball too. The track establishment was appalled, convinced I was jeopardizing my future Olympic prospects. The criticism only fueled my desire to prove them wrong. Nobody was going to tell me I couldn’t play basketball and run track at the same time.
As a freshman point guard, I helped take the Lady Tar Heels to a 35–2 record and a national championship. In my three seasons there, North Carolina was 92–10.
My track career at UNC had its ups and downs. In my freshman year, I placed second at a major competition in the long jump, but placed only sixth in the 200 and failed to make the 100-meter final. Basically, I was running slower than my high school times. I chalked up my slump to playing an entire basketball season and getting in just a week of practice before I was thrown into track competitions. Obviously, there was no way I could win. It was a lack of track and field training. After all, my priority was basketball, and I was on a basketball scholarship. Track would have to wait until I recovered from basketball and was ready to go out there.
After college, I began competing in track meets and rededicated myself to track. I took it one step at a time. I knew that if I didn’t create barriers and limits for myself, anything was possible. I joined a training group called Sprint Capitol USA in Raleigh, North Carolina. I had realistic goals and started to make my mark. I had an amazing year in 1998. I became the fastest woman in the world in the 100 and 200 meters and the first woman in fifty years to win the 100, the 200, and long jump in the same U.S. Championships. I won every race I entered that year. I earned nearly one million dollars that year in winnings and endorsements.
I set my sights on a feat never before accomplished by a woman: to win five gold medals at the 2000 Games in Sydney. I knew it would test my mind, my body, and my spirit, but I felt in my heart I could do it.
During my very first Olympic race, the 100-meter dash, the gun fired, and I exploded out of the blocks. I won in 10.75 seconds, with the second-greatest margin of victory for a 100-meter race in Olympic history. In the coming days, I ended up winning gold in the 100 meters, 200 meters and 4 × 400 meters relay. But the remainder of my quest didn’t pan out. I took the bronze in the long jump and 4 × 100 relay. Still, I was the first woman to win five track and field medals in a single Olympics.
It seemed that overnight I was famous. I had multimillion-dollar development deals, corporate sponsors galore, and plenty of recognition from people everywhere.
But from all that fame and glory, my life started unraveling. I was trying to get past two failed relationships. I had an acrimonious split with my track coach. In 2003, allegations of my use of performance-enhancing drugs before the Sydney Olympics began to swirl, and before long, I became the focus and poster child of the biggest doping scandal in history.
Now, looking back, maybe I needed what happened to me. Maybe I needed to have my face plastered on the front of the newspapers. Maybe I needed to be an item on the nightly news. Maybe I needed the pain, the hurt, the humiliation. The purpose of all of it was to make me honest—really honest . . . and most importantly, honest and true to myself and to God. I needed it to learn that, in life, we must be truthful and do what’s right.
We don’t always think of the consequences of bad choices, and how they can hold us captive. And if they’re colossally bad choices, like the ones I’ve made, they can tear your mind apart and wreck your spirit.
After I lied to federal prosecutors, I thought everything was all right. I thought I could handle it. I thought I could deal with it. I thought I could live with it. I thought it wouldn’t wear me out. But it wore me out and it wore me down. I was living under a weight that I couldn’t get off my back until I cleaned up the mess of my life.
I should be clear about why I’m writing this book. If you picked it up looking for salacious details about doping and drug scandals, I guess you should put it back on the shelf. This is my story, and my story is about my mistakes, how I came to grips with them, the consequences of my actions, and how I made meaning from all of it. My story is different from the one you read in magazines, newspaper, tabloids, or watch on a sports cable channel. My story is about confronting your mistakes, taking responsibility, picking yourself up, moving forward, and doing what you were uniquely created by God to do.
No one is exempt from making mistakes. We all fall down. We all have regret over some action. We let ourselves get knocked down by bad decisions, bad choices, or just by life itself. It’s those knocks that give us the knowledge and the strength to pick ourselves up with God’s help.
None of us has to walk around in shame because of some mistake or indiscretion we’ve committed in our lives. There is a lesson in every mistake. I am as thankful for the valleys as I am for the mountaintops. I am thankful for the storms as well as the sunshine. It is in the valley and through the storm that we find our way back.
It’s what you do after the mistake that really matters, after all. That’s what defines your legacy. We can take our experiences and grow from them, move beyond the shame of them, and use what they have taught us. When you start understanding this, you can live your life with greater joy and purpose.
I have often thought of my eventual decision to tell the truth and have marveled at how the most painful period of my life began a journey to freedom. You know the old saying, “The truth will set you free”? It’s true, and you will feel better when you are no longer living a lie. My faith teaches me that God loves us unconditionally, but it also teaches me that He is a jealous God who loves us too much to leave us mired in our sin and confusion. He uses our own bad choices and disappointments to refine us like gold held over fire. Telling the truth about our brokenness is at the heart of an authentic faith. Telling the truth gives us a new heart and a right spirit.
It’s not easy for me to talk about the mistakes I’ve made. But as I thought about what I’d like to do with my life, I felt that people might be able to learn from my mistakes. I decided I wanted to make a difference in the lives of others—to help people get on the right track so that they can avoid adversity caused by bad choices. I want to help people turn their lives around, no matter how far they have fallen. What happened to me could happen to anyone. If even one person could be helped by my example, then all my struggles have been worth it. I want to inspire others by the fact that if even an Olympic medalist who earned millions and was on the cover of Vogue could fall to such depths and then rise up and see a new day then they could have a new start too. For the first time, I had a new dream that was consuming me. It was something I felt strongly about. I felt that God wanted me to do it and had equipped me to do it.
Maybe there are those of who are wondering, “How can there possibly be a purpose for my life?” Maybe you’ve had disappointments at times or no real direction in your life. I’m well aware that there are those who have had traumatizing experiences. Sometimes God will let us fall flat on our face because it won’t be until we fall flat that we have reason to get up, stronger, wiser, and better than before. That is what happened to me.
My prayer is that my story will help you gather up the strength, the confidence, and the courage to see your way through any experience, no matter how rocky, and see that every situation can inspire a positive step forward.
© 2010 Marion Jones
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