Unsure about her future, Vanessa Jones called her older brother last July looking for advice. Her college career at USC was over and she had a rough showing in the 400 meters at the USA Outdoor Championships.
That’s when her brother shocked her. He told her he would pay for her training and living expenses this year as she prepared for July’s Olympic trials and, the two hope, the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“It motivated me even more,” Vanessa Jones said. “I was just being patient and was praying about it, and then Marvin came with his idea and it was like, ‘Oh, it worked out.’ I didn’t know if I wanted to stay at USC or find a coach.
“He literally took everything in his hands and talked to the recruiting person. He called me and told me to go online and fill out all the paperwork and we’re going to get you in. Then it all happened. I was thankful and blessed to have a brother that believes in me as much as I do in myself. It’s amazing.”
Vanessa is a scholarship athlete at Altis, an elite training facility in Phoenix. The facility used the scholarship-athlete designation for athletes with potential who have not signed shoe or apparel contracts out of college. Marvin is picking up Vanessa's training costs at Altis, around $3,750, along with a $1,000 stipend per month for living expenses. It breaks down to $580 per month for rent and $420 for food, gas and other necessities. He is also picking up any travel costs to meets, if necessary.
“I didn’t think twice about it,” said Marvin, who'd been planning it before his conversation with Vanessa. He wanted to invest in his sister’s future.
Marvin found Altis with an assist from an old friend and former teammate at Cal. Jahvid Best, the former Detroit Lions running back, now runs track. He recommended Altis, where he trains, and said Altis coaches showed interest in Vanessa.
“She needed to be somewhere where she could be with the professionals and be around them to see, ‘Hey, I belong here, too. I can progress enough to make this push to Rio,’" Marvin said. “That was an important thing to me, not only that she is my baby sister, but she is somebody that can actually go out there and compete, you know?”
It’s a period of transition from college to pro for Vanessa. But she also has a chance to represent the United States in Rio in either the 400 or as part of the 4x400-meter relay, depending how she runs starting Friday at a meet in Mesa, Arizona, all the way to July’s Olympic trials.
“I’ve seen some really, really good stuff from Vanessa at times,” said Kevin Tyler, her coach at Altis. “It is just a matter of time that she stabilizes at those levels. I think the best opportunity for her is in the relay, but just being able to, the focus is just being able to improve in these different areas, and she can do that.
“Most of these athletes are at a level where if they just keep improving they are going to get there, even if they improve a small amount.”
Making it in the 400 meters in 2016 could be difficult, especially considering some of her competition will be Allyson Felix and Sanya Richards-Ross. But the relay could be realistic if she shaves enough time off her Pac-12-winning time of 51.50 seconds last year.
Marvin has given more than financial support, offering advice as Vanessa makes the professional transition. He felt she worried about seeing Felix and Richards-Ross lined up with her. He wanted her focusing on herself and her times, that she was being scouted and that she belonged. She just needed to regain her confidence from college.
“You’re going to see all these people you ran against again,” Marvin said. “So the next time you see them, don’t think, ‘Oh my God, do this.’ You’re trying to beat them; you can’t look at them like that.
“Of course they’re great, but at the same time once you get on the line, you’re the best. That’s what you have to think, and that’s what I’ve always told her. That’s what I tell her now more than ever.”
Marvin was always a sounding board, even when he traveled with his family to her meets throughout her college career. He’ll be on the road when he can as well during this meet season leading up to the trials in Eugene, Oregon, July 1-10. If things go according to Vanessa’s plan, she said she’s “going to be a hot mess. I’m going to be so emotional,” because it would mean she’s headed to Rio.
If Vanessa Jones makes the Olympics, travel might be tougher for Marvin. The 400 meters will take place on Aug. 13 and Aug. 15. The 4x400 relay will be Aug. 19 and Aug. 20. The Lions will be in training camp.
Marvin doesn’t know if he’d be able to go to Rio. He wants to, but it will be his first training camp after signing a five-year, $40 million deal going from Cincinnati to Detroit. Marvin’s wife, Jazmyn, told Vanessa if she makes the Olympics she’ll be in attendance. The rest of the Joneses likely will go, too.
But Vanessa knows her brother is the one helping put her in position to have a chance at it. He helped give her the first opportunity.
“He was like, think of it as your first contract,” Vanessa said. “With your brother, I was like, ‘Oh, OK.’ So that made it even more special.”