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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."
Jones went to North Carolina on a basketball scholarship, with plans to run some track. "I loved track, and I wanted to keep it like that," she says. "So many young runners get burned out. I figured I'd do both, but in the beginning, I needed discipline, and the Carolina basketball program is very structured." Her basketball career was brilliant. It began with her standing at the top of the key—"Frozen," she says—when Charlotte Smith hit the three-pointer that gave the Tar Heels the 1994 national title and ended with a No. 1 seeding in the '97 NCAA tournament. (The Tar Heels were upset in the round of 16 by George Washington.)
Jones competed for two years in college track, always short of fitness, trying to sprint with a basketball body (as a full-time track athlete, her weight has dropped to a sinewy 148). In 1996 she had planned to redshirt in basketball and compete in the Atlanta Olympics. Had she not twice broken a bone in her left foot, derailing that dream, she might already have several medals.
It was in Chapel Hill that she met Hunter, who had won a bronze medal at the 1995 worlds. Hunter, seven years Jones's senior, was working as a throws coach under Craddock but resigned when he began going out with Jones in early '96, because university rules forbade coach-athlete dating. "Easy call," says Hunter. By the spring of that year, they were engaged.