Lolo and Shaq: Mark Emmert D.M. Register

By Robert Deutsch, Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

LONDON – The sun was about to rise after another sleepless night for Lolo Jones when her cell phone rang and a number popped up that she didn’t recognize. She answered, and was greeted by the deep bass voice of the Big Diesel.

“It’s Shaq,” he said, and Jones knew there’s only one person in the world with that name.

So it was that basketball great Shaquille O’Neal reached across the Atlantic Ocean  to lift the spirits of fellow LSU alum Jones, a Des Moines native who has experienced public heartbreak in back-to-back Olympic Games.

“It was like the pep talk of my life, but it was 23 seconds or something,” Jones said. “But it was packed full of, like, ‘Get it together’ and ‘You should not be ashamed of what you did. Don’t apologize, don’t feel bad about your performance, you didn’t let anyone down.’ He was pretty much, ‘Go after the next one.’ And it was just motivational.”

The 6 a.m. Thursday phone call from a famous athlete she’d never met didn’t exactly make Jones forget that she had finished fourth in the 100-meter hurdles at the London Olympics on Tuesday, a whisker away from a medal that also eluded her four years ago in Beijing when she clipped a hurdle while leading late in the race.

“He didn’t have to do that at all,” Jones told the Des Moines Register in an exclusive interview Thursday at the P&G Family Home, a haven for athletes and their families. “I wasn’t asleep, I had hadn’t gone to sleep for eight hours. I’m in a perpetual state of shock, so it was kind of weird to talk to him. But the fact that he reached out to me …”

Jones’ voice trailed off a few times during the interview, a reminder that she’s still numb over the loss and stung by some of the public backlash. She spoke about how she’s coping, getting ready to break down the tape of her near-miss with her coach for the first time, and, of course, the Iowa State Fair.

Des Moines Register: It’s been two days since the race, have you found any peace yet with what happened?

Lolo Jones: “Still no peace. I still don’t know God’s overall plan for this. But what I like is the support I’ve received. Because honestly I felt like I let so many people down. I feel terrible for putting people through this kind of again. Because it’s oh-so-close to a medal, and then not. So I just feel like more than anything that I’ve kind of dragged people through this journey again, and fallen so short. I’m pleased with my effort for sure. Because I had so many crazy things happen to me this year, and I fought through them all, the spinal cord surgery and then two hamstring injuries. The rankings, the performance, people saying I wouldn’t make the team, and then making the team. People said I wouldn’t make the final, then making the final. So I just kept fighting through it all.”

DMR: But why do you feel like you let people down? That’s an interesting attitude to have.

LJ: “It would be natural for any athlete to think that. It’s weird because in Beijing I don’t feel like I let anyone down, but here, it’s like I feel, especially my family. I didn’t want to put them through this again. I didn’t want to put them through that heartbreak again.”

DMR: Are you surprised that you’ve become a bit of lightning rod, that you have so many critics? Do you every try to understand what’s driving that?

LJ: “I don’t know where it’s coming from. I’ve experienced doses of it throughout the season, from the predictions of, ‘Absolutely, Lolo will not make this Olympic team,’ to, ‘She won’t recover from her surgery.’ I guess it kind of exponentially here blew up, which is to be expected. I mean, the Olympics is the biggest stage for us. So it was kind of crazy.”

DMR: Do you think it’s fair that there’s so much fixation on your sport in Olympic years, but no one really talks about what you’re doing the other three years?

LJ: “I think it’s cool that they focus on the Olympics and everyone gets 100 percent in. But at the same time, we have world championships every two years, and there’s medals on the line pretty much every year. There’s world indoor titles, there’s world outdoor titles, we have a USA championship every year. So it is crazy that the four-year cycle, a lot is overlooked. But I hope with social media and the fact that people have Twitter now, and all these Olympic athletes that have been out here have now gained a lot of followers on Twitter, that people will be educated through that, if they don’t unfollow us within a week of the Olympics. I’ve been telling people, if they stay on our social media and Twitters, they’ll see how we live our lives and how we make a living. So the same questions we get asked, like, ‘How do you make a living? Or what are you going to do now?’ will be answered as we tweet about our life or share on Facebook. I hope. I don’t know. We had Facebook in ’08, and we still get the same questions.”

DMR: One thing that’s always struck me about you as an athlete is how human you allow yourself to be. At the Opening Ceremony, you were out there with the biggest smile. And then after your loss, you’ve cried a couple of times. Is that something you consc

LJ: “I try to be open. I do. Because I know how I first saw the Olympics was watching it on TV. I was in middle school and just diving into every story, like the gymnastics. I remember just every story that came on TV, I wanted to know more. I wanted to know something about them, and how they became an Olympic athlete. So now that I’m an Olympic athlete, I feel like it’s only my job to kind of be open about things. Obviously, my job is to run down the track, but it’s also to inspire another generation of Olympic athletes. So I don’t know, hopefully one day I’m watching track and field and there’s somebody who says, ‘I remember watching Lolo in the ’08 and 2012 Olympics.’ And that’s why I’m here.”

DMR: Do you ever show an emotion, and then regret it? Do you wish you were more impassive at times?

LJ: “I don’t think I’m overly emotional. I’m just a funny emotional person, I can’t even think right now. But no, I don’t think I’m overly emotional, I think I’m right there. I’d much rather that than closed off. But I didn’t cry on the track either here or Beijing. In Beijing, I waited until I was in the tunnel, and here I didn’t cry until in a back room with my coach (Dennis Shaver), and he’s hugging me. I made sure that it was cool.”

DMR: And then you cried again on the Today Show.

LJ: “I didn’t actually cry. I could not control my voice. It was quavering quite a bit. But no tears fell from this face on that TV. But honestly I was quite frustrated and angry, and my voice could not stop quavering. So my voice was not holding back what my eyes were holding back.”

DMR: There was an interview with your two teammates (Dawn Harper and Kellie Wells, who won silver and bronze) and they don’t seem to like you much. What’s that about?

LJ: “I guess that’s what everyone’s telling me now, gosh. You’d probably have to ask them. I don’t know.”

DMR: What’s next for you? Will you stay in Europe and compete some more or return home?

LJ: “That’s up to my coach. That’s a pretty tough question. There’s four more races, so I have to figure out what to kind of do. I know that this year it took a lot for me to get through every stage.”

DMR: Any race has to be a comedown after the Olympic experience though, right?

LJ: “I think it will be for all the girls who won medals. For sure, there’s no way that they can’t be. I mean, they can break world records and they can run fast, but it’s not like the most beautiful experience in their life (winning an Olympic medal). For me, I didn’t have that. So I’m still a little bitter and angry. I remember in Beijing when I messed up, and then the next race I went to I won that race and it was a great race. But I don’t know what I’m going to do next.”

DMR: How will you remember your London Olympics experience as a whole, from the Opening Ceremony to now?

LJ: “The Opening Ceremony was still positive. But I don’t feel like it was as sparkly — well, obviously, it’s not sparkly, I didn’t get a medal – but definitely it hurt more this time for sure. It hurt more in Beijing, but in a different way. This time it was like, I’m just kind of shocked.”

DMR: Have you gone back over the race in your mind, to see what you could have done differently?

LJ: “I’ll have to talk with my coach. I hate to use that excuse. But I asked him some tough technical questions that I kind of need answers on, and he couldn’t give answers to me at the moment because he was watching on a little TV. He’s like a data man and he goes back and he takes the race and he breaks it down, slo-mo and he watches it from different angles. And so I haven’t seen him for two days now, because I had yesterday off and now I’m supposed to go meet him today after this interview. So I’ll be asking him the same questions. I asked him right after on the track, but he knows my emotions are coming through and I probably won’t be able to process what he says. So he waits till I’m in a calmer state to break down the data, and he’ll tell me my touchdown times over every hurdle, and he’ll tell me at what point in the race did I fall back and where I could have improved. And so I think that’s what’s great about him. He’s going to wait till I’m in the right mind frame to receive the data.”

DMR: Are you looking forward to reviewing the race?

LJ: “Kind of, but in the same time, if he tells me that there’s something I could have done to win that race, because he’s done that before, then that will probably drive me crazy. Because I have a nudging feeling that there’s something I could have. I hope that when I talk to him, he’ll be like, ‘Nope.’ I did have my best race of the season (12.58 seconds), but not of my life.”

DMR: How often do you think about the support you get from your hometown, especially at a moment like this?

LJ: “All the time. And I’m just mad that I travel so much that I can’t go back there a lot. I’m hoping to do more stuff in the places I grew up around. It might be better that I didn’t get a medal because my schedule will be more free, and I can do some things that I’ve wanted to do, charity stuff and not media stuff and not spotlight stuff. Just like me working with kids or whatever. At this point, I’d really like to do that.”

DMR: You should go back now. The State Fair just started today, you know.

LJ: “I just was thinking about that last night, so it’s crazy that you’re asking about it. I literally was at, they threw me a belated birthday party (she turned 30 Sunday), and I was thinking, man when is the Iowa State Fair? And I was thinking about, obviously, what I would have to eat, because I’ve been on such a strict diet and I was just, like, wondering what cool things they would do, what artists they were going to bring in to sing. I probably should go back. They need to change it, because the Olympic year, I’m not just saying for me, there’s a lot of Olympic Iowans. We want to go to the fair. Just move it back a week for all of us. The wrestlers, I’m sure they want to go.”

DMR: I’ll put a word in, and see what they can do.

LJ: “It’s like the best fair. And I take pride in that. I tell people in Louisiana, I’ve been training there a while, but I’ve only went to their fair once, and I never went back. I was like, ‘This is a fair? It seems like a carnival.’ I love Louisiana, but the Iowa State Fair is, like, it’s crazy, it’s the best.”

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