BEIJING -- The coach knew there was something wrong. He could tell sometimes by the way Lori “Lolo” Jones dressed. Or by how she no longer had the bike she rode to practice. Or by how she didn’t want to be dropped off right in front of her house when he gave her a ride home.
The woman who one day would take in Jones sensed it the same way. She had given Jones rides to visit her mother and never was invited into the house. She noticed Jones paid little attention to parts of her appearance, like hair, that preoccupy many teenage girls.
Both the coach, Phil Ferguson, and the friend, Janis Caldwell, say they never knew the whole story, never knew exactly how disjointed Jones’ life had been.
“She never really talked about how bad a situation she was in,” Ferguson said. “The only time she did was when she was going to be homeless.”
In a sense, Jones was homeless the first 18 years of her life in Des Moines, bouncing from apartment to apartment, school to school, because her single mother had five kids and no money for the rent. They lived a while in the basement of a church, an arrangement Jones made an effort to hide.
Her family moved so often, Jones said, that she went to a different school every year until she reached high school. Her father was in and out of jail. Her sister moved to live with a grandmother in Texas.
“We were definitely not as close as most families,” she said.
She would be the only kid on the Des Moines Area Youth Track Club or the Roosevelt High School team without a parent around to cheer her.
Through it all, Jones kept her grades up and played the cello in the high school orchestra and became a good enough high hurdler to be named Gatorade Midwest High School Athlete of the Year. Through it all, the turmoil and rootlessness, one goal never shifted.
“I wanted to get out of poverty,” she said.
At 26, Lolo Jones has done that and so much more. And even if she has provided only basic details of her journey to those who knew her well, the big picture is clear.
The obstacles Jones cleared to get to the 2008 Olympics were a lot more formidable than the 33-inch barriers she will hurdle next week.
Jones has the world’s fastest time this year in the 100-meter hurdles, a 12.45 from the semifinals of the U.S. Olympic trials. She won the final in a wind-aided 12.29, a time bettered by only one woman in history under any conditions.
“She has a tremendous drive to do well, to be a champion, to succeed,” said Ferguson, the coach. “You could tell that even when she was young.”
It is the kind of drive that led her to work a string of part-time jobs to continue her sports career after graduating from Louisiana State, when she did not have the track record to attract a large shoe company contract. She wondered whether it was time to move on to a full-time job outside sports.
She pushed credit cards to the limit. On sweltering, 100-degree days, she told friends that her apartment’s air conditioning was broken. The embarrassing truth was she couldn’t afford it.
“When I didn’t make the 2004 Olympic team, I started wondering if I should pursue track and field or use my economics degree,” she said. “It was very hard, but I’m sure I’m not the only athlete who has been through that.”
Jones had reached an earlier crossroads after her freshman year at Theodore Roosevelt High School. Her mother was moving to a small town near Mason City, Iowa. Jones wanted to stay at Roosevelt.
“I wanted solid ground for the future,” she said. “My main goal was not track but college. I wanted to be the first in my family to graduate college.”
Ferguson stepped in, arranging for her to live with a Des Moines family so she could stay at Roosevelt. Jones would live with three different families, winding up with the Caldwells her senior year.
“I told her she didn’t have to pay any rent, that she could just go to school and go to track practice,” Caldwell said. “But she kept working at a coffee shop to have a little money of her own.”
Jones was planning to go to Iowa State. But she long had admired Caldwell’s goddaughter, elite hurdler Kim Carson, an All-American and national champion at LSU. Carson helped get LSU Coach Dennis Shaver interested in Jones.
It was Shaver who eventually persuaded Jones to continue running after she failed to make the hurdles final at the 2004 Olympic trials.
“I’ll see you at practice tomorrow,” Shaver said to Jones after she told him of her plans to retire. Now she is in the second year of a contract with Asics, the reigning world indoor hurdles champion and a strong contender for an Olympic medal.
“It has come over time,” she said.
In Baton Rouge, Jones has found the stability she long has sought -- a place, as she puts it, “to ground my feet.”
When Jones returned to Des Moines for this year’s Drake Relays, she gave each girl on the Roosevelt High team a pair of spikes and the school a check for $3,000 that will be used to repair the track and buy hurdles. She later gave her $4,000 prize money from the Olympic trials to a fund for a single mother who was a victim of the recent Iowa floods.
For Lolo Jones, staying grounded obviously has never been a problem.
Philip Hersh covers Olympic sports for The Times and the Chicago Tribune.