EUGENE, Ore. — Every time Lolo Jones was tossed a softball question, every time she was given a chance to downplay her struggles in the preliminary round of the women’s 100-meter hurdles at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials on Friday, she chose to bury herself in criticism instead of covering herself in glory.
She could have tried to shrug off her obviously slow start and labored effort during the middle of the race, which left her third in her heat with a time of 13.01 seconds, 15th-fastest among the 21 women who advanced to Saturday’s semifinals.
Instead she turned the occasion into a public self-flaying, though it’s unclear if that sprang from a drive for perfection or a response to the pressure that has mushroomed around her because of her good looks, the inspiring story of her impoverished childhood, and her recent remarks in an HBO interview about her faith and her virginity.
Her face is on magazines, her image on TV screens, but the 29-year-old has yet to win an Olympic medal and prove there’s substance behind the hype. In a tough field that included the last two Olympic champions — Athens winner Joanna Hayes and Beijing winner Dawn Harper — Jones had to put everything out there, and she wasn’t pleased with how it looked or where that leaves her chances of finishing in the top three and earning a berth on the London Olympic team.
The questions started off gently, softly.
Was she satisfied with her race?
“Are you kidding? No. Did you see the race?” she said. “Obviously not. It’s the preliminaries, though, so I didn’t care.”
But she obviously did care because she wouldn’t let it go.
Another questioner tried a different tack, asking if she felt she had gained momentum for the semifinals by not caving in to nerves after a false start two lanes over.
“Not really,” she said with a grimace. “But sometimes I run my best races when I’m pushed in the corner. There’s not a lot of time to worry. I’ve had races where I’ve run like 12.9 and after a lot of those dropped to 12.4.
“So it’s not really a big deal. I am concerned, but I just know there’s room for improvement.”
A lot of improvement. U.S. champion Kellie Wells had the fastest preliminary time, 12.68 seconds and Harper was third at 12.79. Hayes, making a comeback at 35, also moved on with a time of 13.06 seconds.
“You can’t help but see the times,” Hayes said. “We’re in there warming up so you see what they ran so you’re like, ‘She’s ready. She’s ready. She looks good.’”
Hayes said Wells “looked really good and smooth,” and also singled out Harper’s effort. She didn’t mention Jones, but she didn’t have to because Jones critiqued her own effort so harshly.
Jones rejected the notion that the steady rain affected her performance, saying she’s used to rain and humidity at her training base in Baton Rouge, La. She also said the two hamstring pulls she suffered while competing indoors weren’t factors Friday.
“Everybody is hopeful, and I am as well,” she said. “I’ve just got to put things together.
“I look at it as trying to put together a clean, perfect race. Something beautiful.”
Her race Friday was anything but beautiful, but she will have another chance on Saturday to prove what she can do. If she can do it.
“It felt really good. It just was a bad race,” she said. “I kind of gave away the start.”
One more race like that and her Olympic quest will have an unhappy ending.