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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Meeting the Olympic Challenge

Track Star's Performance Was Solid Gold for Area Schools

September 17, 2000|KATIE COOPER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Before the Nike ads, the magazine covers and her icon status at the 2000 Summer Olympics, Marion Jones was a Ventura County sports legend, a lightning-fast runner who tore up the tracks at Thousand Oaks and Rio Mesa high schools.

In those heady days for high school sports fans, she also mastered her basketball game and helped lead two teams to the state playoffs.

As Jones, 24, prepares to launch her unprecedented attempt at a gold medal sweep in five track and field events at Sydney's Olympic Stadium this week, former high school teammates and coaches expressed little doubt that the 5-foot-10 lean machine will accomplish her goals.

"She'll rise to meet the challenge; . . . she doesn't like losing," said Heather Hanger, a former Thousand Oaks High School hurdles and relay race champion who ran with Jones when the school's track team won its first division title in 1992. Hanger, 26, now a health teacher and track coach at the high school, predicts that the only pitfalls for Jones will be the 400- and 1,600-meter relays--and that's because she will have to rely on her teammates.

Brian FitzGerald, who coached Jones for two years at Rio Mesa in Oxnard, said her quest for five gold medals looks promising, even though she's not favored to win the long jump.

"If anyone can do it, Marion can," said FitzGerald, 43. "All it takes is one jump to do it."

FitzGerald, now the high school's athletic director and an English teacher, said Jones is a fierce competitor and a fearless athlete.

"She took on all comers," he said. "She wasn't afraid."

Even when she was a freshman, FitzGerald knew she would become the fastest woman in the world, he said.

"She was the best ever--no girl had ever run that fast," he said.

Jones' mother, Marion Toler, moved her daughter from Sherman Oaks to Oxnard in 1989, drawn to Rio Mesa because of its winning record in track. Jones quickly took the sprinting world by storm. Twice, she won the state high school championship in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, leading Rio Mesa to back-to-back division titles.

FitzGerald said he was forced to regularly revise Jones' training plan, because she constantly surpassed her projected peak speeds.

"She was running too fast, too early, but then I'd change it, and she'd run faster," he said.

He doesn't take credit for Jones' status as a world-class athlete, but is clearly proud of having coached her at one time.

"She came into her own as a track athlete when she was with me," FitzGerald said.

Jones transferred to Thousand Oaks High in 1991, her junior year, after disagreements arose over her use of a private coach. FitzGerald said he bears no grudge about their falling out.

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With her private coach assisting at the Thousand Oaks track team's workouts, Jones won two more titles in the 100- and 200-meter state championships.

But by then, the allure of Olympic competition had begun to draw Jones beyond high school sports. With a shot at making the 1992 team, her coach pulled her out of the 1,600-meter relay at the high school state championships to keep her fresh for Olympic trials.

The move, Hanger said, might have cost the division-winning team a state title.

"I didn't blame her," said Hanger, a Camarillo resident. "[The private coach] was trying to protect her legs."

Art Green, the former Thousand Oaks High track team coach, also said he understood the decision.

"We had a dream season [that year], and we only had a problem right at the end. It didn't take away from anything," he said.

At age 16, Jones was expected to qualify as an alternate in the 400-meter relay, but she chose not to attend the training camp before the 1992 Summer Games held in Barcelona, Spain.

Green stays in loose contact with Jones, since she graduated from Thousand Oaks High in 1993. He has traveled to some of her competitions, including the 1997 world championships in Athens, where she won her first world title in the 100-meter.

Green was unable to travel to Australia to watch Jones in person, but said the American track and field team will make for great live competition.

"It's one of our strongest teams," Green said. "When all the Americans are in the stands waving flags, it's incredible. And it really gets the athletes excited."

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Green said he doubts that Jones will get much sleep in the days leading up to her events.

"She gets so excited inside, because she loves to compete," he said. "That's how she got so far."

At Thousand Oaks, she practiced sprints with the boys team, because she required the challenge, both mentally and physically.

"She definitely raced them, and sometimes she would beat them," said Green, 47, who coached track for 24 years--17 of them at Thousand Oaks.

Jones also played basketball at Thousand Oaks, learning the moves she later used at the University of North Carolina, when she helped the team win the 1994 NCAA women's title.

The Thousand Oaks girls basketball team won the division title in Jones' junior year and placed second the next year.

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