SI Flashback: The Fast Lane
Marion Jones is the best female sprinter on the planet, a rising star in the long jump and a world-class point guard--and she hasn't even hit her stride yet
Posted: Friday January 11, 2008 1:51PM; Updated: Friday January 11, 2008 6:39PM
She lay on the living room floor of her family's Los Angeles house in 1981, watching the royal wedding of Charles and Diana on television. Marion Jones was five years old, a little girl creating her own vision from the pictures on the screen. "They have a red carpet to walk on, because they're special people," she chirped to her mother and her brother. "When will they roll out a red carpet for me?"
They're in the process even now. The rug is thick and plush, unfurling toward the millennium. In the autumn of 2000, Jones could--no, plans to--win five gold medals at the Sydney Olympics, having by then, at the doddering age of 25, run faster and jumped farther than any other woman in history. She might then (or later, but eventually) switch from track and field to basketball and resume playing the sport in which she scored 1,716 points in three years at North Carolina. "As an elite two-sport athlete, she would be in a class by herself at that point," says Gary Cavalli, president of the pro American Basketball League. To each of these endeavors Jones would bring a charm on which marketing campaigns can be built.
To review: Win five golds, eclipse Florence Griffith Joyner and Jackie Joyner-Kersee in the record book, rescue track and field from oblivion, then nurture another sport by feeding Chamique from the point and maybe winning a few championships. This is heavy lifting, a job with few candidates. "I'll say this," says Dennis Craddock, who coached Jones during her moonlighting track seasons at North Carolina. "You don't put limits on what Marion Jones can do. In anything. Period." When Jones is finished, it might be fair to ask whether the best athlete in the world wears a jockstrap.
In the insular world of track and field, Jones's potential has long been known. An erstwhile California high school prodigy, Jones returned to the sport full time last year for the first time since 1993 (having forgone her final year of basketball eligibility with the Tar Heels) and stunned even her believers by winning the U.S. and world 100-meter titles and running 10.76 seconds for the 100, equaling the fifth-fastest time in history--all after one spring's crash training with a new coach. "We all knew she was fast, but we also knew it takes years to reach a high level," says U.S. sprinter Inger Miller, who ran with Jones on the gold-medal-winning 4x100 relay at last summer's world championships in Athens. "Everyone was shocked how quickly she hit those times."
On May 13 of this year, with a winter of training behind her, Jones ran 10.71, in Chengdu, China, the fastest 100 by any woman other than Flo-Jo. On May 31, at the Prefontaine Classic, she long-jumped a world-leading 23'11 1/4". At last week's national championships she became the first woman in 50 years to win three individual events--the 100, 200 and long jump--and she matched her 10.71 in the 100. "What she's getting ready to do is going to blow everybody's mind," says sprint coach John Smith, a 1972 U.S. Olympian in the 400 meters. "We're talking about 10.50 or better for the 100, 21-flat for the 200 [Griffith Joyner's world records are 10.49 and 21.34] and, in the long jump, at least 25 feet [Galina Chistyakova's world standard is 24'8 1/4"; Joyner-Kersee's U.S. mark is 24'7"]. I mean, as fast as she is--and she can dunk a basketball."
It's true, she can. "She's done it in practice, she's done it in warmups before a game," says North Carolina women's basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell. For the Tar Heels, Jones did much more than dunk. In her three years as starting point guard, North Carolina went 92-10, didn't lose an Atlantic Coast Conference tournament game and won the 1994 NCAA championship. At 5'10", 155 pounds, Jones brought explosiveness and speed to her position. "She intimidates when she walks on the court," says Hatchell. "And she brings everybody on her team up to her level, because she refuses to drop to someone else's. There's not a pro league in the world that wouldn't take her in a heartbeat."
This is how she affects others: In the 1996-97 basketball season, Jones's backcourt partner was sophomore Jessica Gaspar. In the second round of the NCAA tournament, as Carolina was eliminating Michigan State, Gaspar tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee while slicing to the basket after receiving a pass from Jones. Gaspar didn't know for certain that Jones would give up her final year of eligibility, but she suspected it. "The first thing I thought was that this was the last pass I'd ever get from Marion," says Gaspar. "That hurt more than blowing out my knee, because I knew my knee would heal, but I wasn't ever going to play with Marion again."
Last summer, Jones soared to the top of the track and field world--supplanting Gail Devers and Merlene Ottey as the fastest woman in the world--even though her decisions to stop playing basketball and to marry 29-year-old shot-putter C.J. Hunter left her feeling unwanted by the North Carolina athletic community that she had so spectacularly represented and by her mother, whom she did not see for almost a year.
"I was not surprised by her performance," says Marion Toler, Jones's 52-year-old mother. "She was angry at people, at Coach Hatchell, at Coach Craddock, probably at me. She has always put critical articles in her scrapbook to motivate herself, and she excels in situations like this. There was a lot more at work last summer than fast-twitch fibers."
On the night of her 100-meter gold medal run in Athens, Jones stood outside the stadium in darkness and said, "As long as you're running fast, life is good." It's her mantra, her motivation and her escape.
They have lived a very long 22 years as mother and daughter. Toler came to the U.S. in 1968 at age 22 from her native Belize. She had previously spent two years at a secretarial school in London and spent two more in New York. She was briefly married and bore a child, Jones's half brother, Albert Kelly. After moving to Los Angeles in '71, she met and married George Jones, a union that lasted four years and produced one child, a girl born in '75 and named for her mother.
In 1983 the family moved from L.A. to Palmdale, a small desert city 50 miles to the north, and Marion married Ira Toler. While Marion Toler worked as a legal secretary, Ira played Mr. Mom to the children and became especially close to the girl known to her family and friends then--and to many of them now--as Little Marion. When Ira died of a stroke in '87, it was devastating to both Marions. "Ira was always there for my sister," says Kelly, now 27. "He talked to her, answered her questions, helped her with homework, took her to tee-ball games. Then he was gone."
As Little Marion grew, her drive became voracious. Kids on the block called her Hard Nails for her stoicism and spunk. "I had no use for dolls or any girl things or even girlfriends," says Marion, who loved snakes and wasn't afraid of the dark. Marion Toler, who had grown up with a father of Victorian sensibilities, understood that if she raised her daughter the way she had been raised, she would risk losing her. "She was the type of child who would say, 'If I don't get this or that, I'm going to jump off this ledge,'" Toler says. "If I said, 'Go ahead, jump,' she would have. I knew that she would defy me, test me, and there were many rebellions. But I decided that she was special, that I had to find a way to nurture these qualities, not beat them out of her."
The daughter's success and happiness became the mother's quest. Toler moved the family from Palmdale southwest to the suburban Los Angeles town of Sherman Oaks so Marion could attend Pinecrest Junior High. Before Marion's ninth-grade year, Toler and her children moved again, to the Ventura County town of Camarillo, and Marion attended Rio Mesa High. Two years later they moved once more, so Marion could attend and play basketball at nearby Thousand Oaks High. Toler worked two jobs one summer so Marion could go to Asia with a California all-star basketball team. In 1992 Toler enlisted Elliott Mason, who had once trained with five-time Olympian Evelyn Ashford, to coach Marion in her attempt to make that year's U.S. sprint team. (Jones missed by .07 when she finished fourth in the 200 and declined a spot as a 4x100 relay alternate because, she says, "when people come to see my gold medals, I want to be able to say I ran for them.")
Marion was a woman among little girls in high school. As a sophomore, she was the fastest in the U.S. at 100, 200 and 400 meters; as a junior she ran 22.58 for the 200, a national scholastic record that still stands. In basketball she twice took Thousand Oaks High to the regional championship game. How the soccer coach let her escape is a mystery.
Jones's self-reliance deepened as she grew. When her mother moved with her to Chapel Hill when she matriculated at North Carolina in 1993, Jones felt claustrophobic. "I had always been independent," says Jones, "but when I went to college, that was multiplied 10 times. My mother and I butted heads, a lot."
Toler says, "I wasn't trying to control her, I just wanted to watch her play ball."