Lolo Jones knows better than most how profound a small gesture can be.
Jones is an Olympic athlete in track and bobsled -- but was once a girl whose parents couldn't afford running shoes. She borrowed basketball shoes from a friend in middle school to take part in workouts. Then, in high school, a teammate with an extra pair gave them to Jones.
"For me, when I got the shoes, it was just a sense of relief, and, like, now I can compete," Jones said of that time. "Now, running is a dream. It's a strong passion of mine."
And now Jones is helping to do the same thing for other kids in need. This fall, she was a key figure in the Asics Extra Mile campaign, which donated a pair of shoes (50,000 in total) for each four-mile run that participants logged on the app Runkeeper.
"That's what the whole program's about: giving self-confidence to these girls and what they can do with that in the future," Jones said. "I just think it helped transform my life, so I know the impact this can have on others. That base of confidence is just key in today's society where kids are bullied and nit-picked at. Giving them that self-worth, it's amazing what it will do."
Jones also knows plenty about being put down. She was teased as a kid because her parents couldn't give her things the other kids had; she was relentlessly ridiculed following a late slipup in the 2008 Olympics that cost her a gold medal and she was mocked when she was selected to the U.S. bobsled team for the 2014 Games. Then, when Jones returned to hurdles but withdrew before even competing in the 2016 Olympic trials, there was a resounding chorus of people who said her career was over.
But Jones, 34, isn't done yet. The hip injury that forced her to the sidelines in 2016 will take two years to fully heal. One year in, she spoke to us about her recovery, how she's back competing for the U.S. bobsled team -- and how hard it is to find a balance between the two sports.
This was the worst injury I've ever had. I've had spinal surgery, shoulder surgery and now hip surgery, and this hip surgery by far was the worst. It was really tough because it was the first time it shut me down for a whole year. It was the first time I wasn't able to travel to Europe and race, the first time I wasn't able to go to U.S. national and Olympic trials.
It was a really hard one, and there were moments where I was like, "Man, is this injury going to be the death sentence for my career? Is this how it ends?"
But if anybody needed a break from the Olympics at that time, it was me. I was one of the only athletes besides Lauryn Williams that had been to three Games in a row, summer and winter, no breaks. It was good to kind of step back.
It was tough physically, but honestly it was tougher mentally. It forced me to literally sit and kind of think about what my next step was. It just felt like I had no options. I couldn't run, I couldn't compete, I couldn't move on to the next thing. It was the first time in my life I had to sit still. As a runner, you know how hard that is?
I eventually watched the Olympics. At first, I wasn't going to. I was only going to watch certain things. Then, I wound up watching everything, all the way down to, like, the horses dancing. It went from zero to 100 really quick.
People connect with you through your weaknesses. When I've had something that's a failure, I've always expressed it, and I think a lot of people gravitate towards that. I was vulnerable watching the Olympics, just like I was vulnerable years ago watching it, but I went on Twitter, made jokes about it, just was honest about it. I think they connect more with me for that than when I only show the victories or I only show the moments when I'm on top.
One of the biggest criticisms I get is that I don't have an Olympic medal. Let's say I go on there and I want to talk about the Super Bowl and who's going to win. I'll get so many comments like, "Shut up, B! You don't have an Olympic medal." And in my mind, I'm like, "Well, do you?"
From Day 1, the person who's teased me the most about not having an Olympic medal is me. The moment I hit that hurdle and lost the gold, I was the first one to make jokes about that. "Oh, they raised my hurdle too high," "I wasn't wearing my glasses," -- I'm the first one to do self-deprecating jokes.
Now I'm back to bobsled, and the training is very different. They say it's usually two years before you feel normal again after the hip surgery I had. It's been about a year, and I'm finally able to compete and compete at a healthy level. But my strength needs to go up, so I do a lot of different weights that I wouldn't do for track and field, like trap bar deadlift, more squats and pushing a prowler.
It's kind of like I'm training to be a wide receiver. You want to be powerful, but you also want to be super fast.
For track, I focus more on the quickness of weights, power cleans -- really quick movements with a lot of reps. For bobsled, I'm doing few reps and I'm in there like a bodybuilder.
In track, I have nine months where I'm just like, "Oh, my gosh, I just had three M&M's, is that gonna be why I lose my next race?" Track is really strict on my diet. I'm really limited on carbs, and dessert is a rarity. Everything is just very strictly monitored. In bobsled, I'm able to kind of relax, and I actually think that gives me a bit of a mental edge. In bobsled, I'm just pounding chocolate candy bars and it's, like, fine.
The two sports are a yin-yang situation. They balance each other perfectly. In summer, it's 100-something degrees out there, and it feels like I'm running in a desert. Then, I go to bobsled, and it's minus-4, and I'm like, "Oh, my gosh, I wish it was sunny and hot." It helps me appreciate each aspect.
I'm finally getting where I need to be in bobsled. When it came to the U.S. bobsled team trials this year, I was not ready yet. Not at all. They knew it, too. It was the first time in my life I heard, "Lolo's out of shape." I didn't look overweight -- I looked the same -- but I was really gassed after I was running, and I just didn't have the strength and the speed. I just didn't have it because I couldn't run well yet.
I went to those nationals with three weeks of training under my belt, and the other girls had been training for six months. I went there trying to compete with them, and they were on fire, and I was dragging so hard. Luckily, the coaches and my teammate, Elana Meyers Taylor, knew I was coming off of an injury and I couldn't train. It wasn't like I didn't want to.
Athletes are always trained to know that we're replaceable. If we can't perform, there's always somebody that can come in and take our spot. I was stressed after that trials performance, but everyone was very patient with me.
They had a second round of qualifications, and by that mark, I was in better shape. That showed them. They could look at the improvements I'd made in another month. That's essentially what got me on the team.
My goal now is to go to PyeongChang and win an Olympic medal on Elana's sled. I just had a race with her on Dec. 16, and we got a silver medal in the Lake Placid World Cup. If I'm being realistic, though, it's going to be a really tough battle. Everybody wants to get on her sled. She's medaled in the last two Olympics. She's one of the best pilots, not only on the women's side, but in the history of bobsled. It's going to be a battle among all the girls to see who is the final person that gets to take that ride with her.