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Gold medalists to face new ‘golden girl’ at U.S. track trials

EUGENE, Ore. -- After Joanna Hayes tore her patellar tendon at the 2008 U.S. Olympic trials and couldn’t defend the 100-meter hurdles gold medal she had won at the Athens Games, she figured her athletic career was over. She rehabbed slowly, well enough to run alongside the kids she coaches at Studio City Harvard-Westlake but with no goal other than to live a “normal” life. Giving birth to her daughter, Zoe, in December 2010 seemed to cement her retirement.

But then her knee stopped hurting during her cross-country runs with the Harvard-Westlake kids, and her boyfriend, Eric Thomas, triggered her competitive instincts by suggesting she could probably still compete on an elite level. So there she was last November, calling her former coach, Bobby Kersee, to tell him she wanted to make a comeback.

“I think having a baby took some of my brain away,” she said, laughing.

In truth, her motivation for returning was powerful. It’s a gift to herself and a way to set an example for Zoe, whose first steps quickly turned into the little girl’s first run.

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“When I injured my knee so badly here at the trials, it left a bad taste in my mouth that year, running in Europe trying to chase money with this pain,” Hayes said Wednesday on the eve of the 2012 trials that will determine the U.S. track and field team for the London Games.

“When I’m done I want to be done and I want to say goodbye to track and field competitively in a positive manner. So this year I just wanted to come out and have a really good time and enjoy every moment of this incredible sport. And that’s what I’m doing. This will be my last Olympic trials and I’m going to have fun every single round, every single day.”

Hayes, who has run only four races since her return, faces a tough battle to finish in the top three and make the U.S. team in her specialty, which begins competition Friday. Dawn Harper, the 2008 Olympic champion, is the favorite but 2011 U.S. champion Kellie Wells has the best time by an American woman this year (12.55 seconds), and Hayes’ training partner, Ginnie Crawford, has twice been timed at 12.66.

Then there’s Lolo Jones, who didn’t attend a scheduled news conference Wednesday with the other top hurdles contenders but was still an undeniable presence.

Jones has become the sport’s golden girl and flavor of the moment, dominating the few headlines track and field generates while collecting an array of endorsements. She’s a successful and attractive woman with a history of overcoming adversity -- she lived in the basement of a Salvation Army church in Des Moines, and she lived with different families in order to continue competing in high school -- and she added a near-tragic element by leading the field at the Beijing Games until she tripped over the ninth hurdle and lost her chance at a medal.

More recently, Jones told a national TV audience she is a virgin at 29 and that she dates online.

It’s not easy for her more accomplished rivals to see money and attention heaped on Jones, who hasn’t won a world outdoor title or Olympic medal. “We all have a story to tell. We all have a story that we can pitch that can be just as intriguing as Lolo’s,” Crawford said. “I think the best thing is that we still stay focused. What proves our validity in this sport is what we do as in making teams and what medals and things we get.

“I know to outside people, though, seeing Lolo’s face and hearing her story, that does bring a lot of notoriety to the sport and that’s good in that aspect. People on the outside looking in that aren’t in the world of track and field don’t understand how we prove our validity in this sport and how we make our living in it and what it does mean to have those medals and make teams ... not just to have a great story or being a face.”

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Wells said the media “happen to really like Lolo and that’s a very good thing for the sport because track doesn’t get very much press. It doesn’t really affect things one way or another.”

But in many ways, it does.

Hayes, who said she has no endorsements and finds whatever work she can as a coach, commentator and speaker to support her daughter, deftly analyzed the media’s fascination with Jones.

“I could come from media standpoint, athlete standpoint or fan standpoint,” Hayes said. “If I come from an athlete standpoint and say, ‘Yeah, she’s getting more attention than the reigning Olympic champion or the U.S national champion from last year,’ so I would say, ‘Hey, what about the love for everyone else?’

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“But then I’d say, ‘Well she has this story that she’s able to capitalize off of and she’s got a great team. They market her. So if you want to be marketed, you have to put yourself out there and be that person.’ So there can be a whole lot of reasons why the media want Lolo to get the attention. You have to put that out of your mind and say, ‘I’m training. And I got to win. Because at the end of the day, Lolo may or may not make the team but I’ve got to make the team so I can’t worry about it.’

“From the media [perspective] I get it. She’s got this face that people love. She’s got this story. And she’s out there. She puts herself in the right places at the right times. As a fan, this is awesome. I’ve got this girl who is beautiful, she’s articulate, she’s a virgin, I mean all these great things about her, I want to cheer for Lolo.”

Hayes also acknowledged that given the same opportunities as Jones, “I’d do most of the same things. She has like 1,200 sponsors. It’s funny. I have no money. I work every day, hard. Every little bit counts. How much does this hotel cost? How much is this and I have Zoe,” Hayes said.

“But no matter how much money she or anyone else has, no matter how many endorsements, they don’t have Zoe. When you come home and see Zoe it doesn’t matter how much money you made that day or how you felt in practice. It all just falls away.”

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