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In 1983, when Marion Jones was eight years old and had graduated from T-ball to Little League, she found herself not only competing against boys, but beating them. Once, with a runner on second base, Marion hit the ball beyond the outfielders and, pigtails flying, raced around the bases so quickly she overtook the boy ahead of her by the time he had reached third.
"Don't pass him!" her mother called from the stands, and Marion slowed down and impatiently ushered the runner ahead of her, all but pushing him toward home plate. Her team nearly always won.
Marion enjoyed playing baseball, which pleased her mother; she had been looking for an outlet for her spirited daughter. Then one day, as her mother tells it, she came to bat late in a game she had dominated.
"Hit her between the eyes!" a parent of a player on the opposing team called out.
"Bean her!" another adult called, and soon a number of the spectators, grown men and women, were yelling at the pitcher to throw the ball at the girl standing at the plate with a bat in her hand.
"If this keeps up, somebody is going to prison here" Marion's stepfather, Ira Toler, told her mother. "We have to find something else for her to do."
Marion was enrolled in a gymnastics class the next week, and never played baseball in an organized league again.
On Saturday morning, Marion's brother, Albert, would try to sneak out of the house early and alone, but he seldom made it. Marion, who was five years younger, was almost always waiting for him to go meet his friends.
Dolls? Marion never wanted one. Dresses? Girlfriends? Marion had littleinterest. It was Albert she cared about. Albert, his friends, and their games. All their games. Baseball, basketball, bike riding, hide-and-go-seek, every variation of tag--they were all part of the weekend routine, and Marion didn't want to miss any of it.
"I was really quite annoying" Marion said of those early-morning forays with Albert into their neighborhood in Palmdale, a high-desert community in the Antelope Valley north of Los Angeles. "He's trying to hang out with his friends and his little sister is with him. He'd say, 'Mom, does Marion have to come?' and she would say, "Just let her tag along, she's not going to be in the way. I was in the way, of course, but I think he got used to it after a while."
Albert got used to it when he and his friends discovered that even though Marion was playing with boys, some considerably bigger than she was, she could more than hold her own.
"Even when she was six years old," said Albert, a real estate appraiser in the Pacific Ocean community of Oxnard, "she could compete with my friends and me. She could dribble a basketball, run races with us, ride bikes with us. She could throw a baseball, and hit one. When it came to games, she didn't have any girl-like qualities. It was almost like having a brother."
As for any of Albert's friends who might grumble about playing with a girl, the point soon became moot. There was little any of them could say after Marion had won another game of 21, or another race around the block.
"Hey, my sister is beating all you guys," Albert would crow after Marion had won another game of pickle, a game in which a runner would try to avoid being tagged out by players throwing a baseball back and forth between two trees.
After a time, Marion's playtime presence among the neighborhood boys was no longer unusual. Soon, she was among the first chosen when they divided into teams, and, no matter what game was being played, Albert made sure he was a captain so he could choose his sister. "She was strong, almost as tall as most of my friends," he said, "and she never, ever quit."
Marion's greatest triumph in Palmdale came when Albert and his friends made a ballot box and conducted a neighborhood vote for their whiffle ball All-Star team. Marion, who was seven, was among those chosen.
"That was one of the most exciting moments of my short life," she said, grinning at the memory.
It was soon clear that Marion would not be able to enjoy sports, or to get better at them, unless she played against boys exclusively. She was the tallest girl in her kindergarten and firstgrade classes and simply too fast and strong for the others.
"When they put her in a girls race at school, she smoked them," Albert said. "It was just no competition. When most girls are growing up, they play with other girls, and if they get into sports, that's who they compete against. With Marion, it was different. She competed against boys because she had to."
"Little girls were too soft for her," Marion's mother said. "She had to play with the boys."
But just playing with boys wasn't enough; very early, Marion discovered how much she liked beating them. She liked how it felt being on the winning team, crossing the finish line first, coming home from school or youth-group play days with medals. And if winning meant working even harder, fine. When Albert showed her how to shoot a jump shot, she stayed out on the court practicing until her mother insisted she come inside. In gymnastics class, when she saw older girls practicing back flips, cartwheels, or handstands, she asked an instructor to demonstrate and, within a month, she was doing them as well as the older girl next door, who had been practicing for years. Not long after that, she was doing them almost as well as the instructor.
Marion's capacity for learning a skill or technique, and then practicing until she had mastered it...See How She Runs. Copyright © by Ron Rapoport. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.