Marion Jones knows a lot about the potential of youth. During her high school years in Southern California she was one of the most precocious track athletes in U.S. history, winning nine state titles, setting a national high school record in the 200 meters (22.58 seconds) and earning a relay spot on the 1992 U.S. Olympic team, which she turned down because she preferred to wait four years and attend her first Games as an individual entrant. Few athletes have shown more promise so young, and Jones has never lost touch with the successes of her youth.
Last year she donated $25,000 to the national scholastic indoor championship meet, citing her fond memories of competing in it from 1990 to '93. Jones's affection for high school track made for sweet synergy last weekend when some of the best high school athletes since her time competed in the Foot Locker Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Raleigh, N.C., her adopted hometown, where a USA Track & Field Golden Spike Tour event was also being held.
Who better than a former prodigy to appreciate this year's almost unprecedented flood of young talent in track? Last Friday night, after the day's brutal heat and humidity had given way to the evening's brutal heat and humidity, Dathan Ritzenhein, a junior at Rockford ( Mich.) High, won the two mile in 8:473, crushing one of the best high school distance fields ever assembled. Ritzenhein, a 5'7" 110-pounder who last fall won the national high school cross-country championship, prevailed with a sustained move, typical of much older runners, that began more than 1,000 meters from the finish. Despite lingering weariness from a failed attempt six days earlier to qualify for the Olympic trials in the 5,000 meters (the standard is 13:48, and Ritzenhein ran 14:13, also in extreme heat), he ran the second mile in Raleigh faster than the first, 4:18 to 4:29.
One day after Ritzenhein's tour de force, senior Rickey Harris of Centreville (Va.) High won the 400-meter hurdles in 51.14 seconds, slower than his season's best of 50.29 but spectacular considering that it followed a 60-minute thunderstorm delay and that Harris smashed into three hurdles. "I never had my race rhythm," said Harris, whose father, Rickie, is a former Washington Redskins defensive back. Young Rickey, who will attend Florida in the fall, had come to the meet chasing the national record of 50.02, and his failure to get the mark left him sobbing near the track.
Jones, meanwhile, wasn't reduced to tears by her second long-jump competition of the year, at the Pontiac Grand Prix Invitational in Raleigh, but she also did nothing to make her opponents weep. One day after two-time Olympic long-jump champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee, 38, came out of a two-year retirement to officially enter the U.S. Olympic Trials, Jones jumped a meager 21'6" to finish second. While that leap was an improvement of nearly a foot over Jones's dismal season-opening long jump, on May 13 in Osaka, Japan, it wasn't good enough to make anyone believe that her five-gold-medal plan for Sydney won't end in the sand. "Right now she's gambling that she can get off one good jump," says retired men's world-record holder Mike Powell. Jones's Raleigh leap left her as only the sixth-best American in the event this year and far out of the world's top 50.
On Saturday, Jones and her coach, Trevor Graham, scrapped a two-season experiment in making her a power jumper who explodes into the air off the board, and they returned to her old form, in which Jones simply sprints off the board on an almost flat arc over the sand. The result is a jarring landing that sends Jones forward onto her knees, but in 1998 the technique produced a leap of nearly 24 feet. After her jump on Saturday, Graham praised her takeoff but criticized her approach, while Jones loved her approach.
Notably, the winner of the long jump in Raleigh was Chandra Sturrup of the Bahamas, who went 21'11�" in her first competition since 1995. Sturrup trains with Jones and is coached by Graham. "He's changed things," Sturrup says. "Technically, Trevor has helped me." He will need to perform similar magic on Jones—and soon—if she hopes to keep the luster on her five-gold dream.