They line up on the bench beside the track, quietly awaiting their cue. Some tie and re-tie their spikes, or tug at their socks, or rearrange the ribbons in their hair. Anything to quell their pre-race nerves, anything to keep them from staring at this superstar sitting among them.
Marion Jones is her name. She's a junior at Thousand Oaks High School and the fastest female sprinter in U.S. high school history. Currently, she's the second-fastest female 200-meter runner in the nation--not among high schools but college and open divisions.
Those who line up against Jones need no reminding. They've seen her starts, her incredible burst of power that, in a blink, leaves them five meters behind. They've seen her blaze away, sleek and graceful as a cheetah, determined as a bullet train. They've heard the announcers go ga-ga every time she sets her spikes on the track.
At Saturday's Southern Section track and field championships at Cerritos College, Jones was among the 3-A sprint finalists--at least technically. Rubbing shoulders with her on the bench before the 100 and 200 was as close as any of her opponents would get.
They tried not to stare, but it was difficult. One girl fixed her eyes on the earring--a silver peace sign--dangling from Jones' right ear. Another seemed more interested in the beaded necklace hanging loosely around Jones' neck. Others glanced at her long, muscular legs. Only the truly brave had the nerve to speak to her.
"Going to Junior Nationals this year, Marion?" one girl finally asked.
"Nah," Jones answered softly. Then she smiled and quickly jogged away.
Certainly, Jones has far more important meets to compete in this summer than those for the teen-age jet set. After her last day of school, June 16, Jones will fly that night to New Orleans, site of the U.S. Olympic track and field trials. The next stop after that, she hopes, will be Barcelona.
But first there's these high school matters to attend to. Like next week's Masters meet, and the State meet the week after that. A couple small steps before she hits the big road.
Boys who once played high school basketball on the same court as Cherokee Parks will no doubt grow up remembering every game--every dribble--that they experienced alongside the former Marina High star. And when Parks, now at Duke, makes his way into the NBA, his former opponents will probably watch him from their sofas, saying things like, 'Hey, I got a shot over Parks once,' or 'Aw, he wasn't so tough.' "
It won't be that way with Jones, at least not within the section. Her best (and national record-setting times)--11.17 seconds in the 100, 22.67 in the 200--are far beyond any of her opponents' capacity, way beyond the "Oh, I used to run with her," zone.
So what's an opponent to do?
"You just want to stop and watch her," Edison sprinter Jennifer Infusino said. "She's so amazing. It's like all of a sudden, she's out of our camera."
Translation: Jones is so far ahead, she can't be picked up by peripheral vision.
"Don't worry," a woman standing next to Infusino said. "I got her on my video camera."
Said Edison miler Jana Evans: "I think someone should make Marion Jones run the 1,600."
Some, like Woodbridge freshman Meisha Wilson-Duval, even see Jones speeding through their dreams.
"Yeah," said Wilson-Duval, second to Jones in the 200, and third in the 100. "I dream about beating the girl. I mean, I know she's a human being. She can be beat. But I do psyche myself out though. I go, 'Oh my God! I'm running against Marion Jones.' Then my mom steps in."
And wakes her up to positive thinking. Wilson-Duval, who competed for a local age-group track club before high school, said she used to be a negative thinker. Racing against Jones, she said, has helped her change her 'tude.
In nearly every meeting this year, the two have been lined up in adjacent lanes, a true test of nerves for a ninth-grader.
But like fellow freshmen Meghan Reppe of Villa Park and Tara Oettinger of Foothill--also 3-A finalists Saturday--Wilson-Duval says she's managed to stay cool.
"Hey, if you don't think positive, what chance do you have?" she said. "Shoot, if I was running against FloJo I'd have to think that way. I could at least give her a run for the money."
"My goal isn't just to beat Marion Jones," Wilson-Duval said. "My goal is to be in the '96 Olympics some day as well."
For now, at least, keeping up with Jones is all that matters.