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There's No Time to Rest for Jones

Track and field: While looking ahead to Athens, she gears up for her fifth consecutive appearance at Mt. SAC.

April 17, 2002|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The glint in Marion Jones' eyes and the brightness of her smile weren't illusions produced by the makeup artists who hovered over her during a magazine photo shoot Tuesday. The prospect of beginning another track season--one in which she hopes to "go to the edge ... [to] touch times that have never been touched before"--produced a glow no cosmetic could create.

Nearly halfway between her five-medal performance at the Sydney Olympics and planning an encore at the 2004 Athens Games, Jones has taken stock and decided she can push herself harder to again reach the extraordinary levels she attained a few years ago. That push will begin in earnest this weekend, when she makes her fifth consecutive appearance at the Mount San Antonio College Relays in Walnut, competing in the 400 meters.

"I've been running here since I was running for junior track clubs the West Valley Eagles," said Jones, who runs at Mt. SAC for little besides a thank you, instead of the huge fees she usually commands.

The support she always gets from friends and family at the meet might help her get through the 400, a race she hates because it's too punishing for a body accustomed to delivering shorter, powerful bursts in the 100 and 200. But she and coach Trevor Graham decided she needs something more than sprints to build strength and endurance, making this the first of several 400s she might run this season.

"I promise you, I'll never get to a point in my career where I like the 400," said Jones, who set a personal best of 49.59 seconds two years ago at Mt. SAC. "But I'm an athlete, and I've been doing this 20 years and I know certain things I have to do to be at a certain level....

"I do want to get back, and I think I'm going to make the move this year, to really dominating races and getting back to the really fast times I did in '98 and '99. I want to run faster than I've ever run before. Let's leave it at that. I'd be quite satisfied to step on the track and run faster than I ever have."

Jones set her personal bests in the 100 (10.65 seconds), 200 (21.62 seconds) and long jump (23 feet, 113/4 inches) in 1998. She won every competition she entered that year except the season finale, when Germany's Heike Drechsler defeated her in the last World Cup long jump.

She knows everything she does will be measured against that magical year. No matter that she won her first world title in the 200 last summer at Edmonton--critics emphasized she lost a 100 for the first time in four years and lost her world championship to Zhanna Pintusevich-Block of Ukraine.

"Not only have I kind of spoiled myself, but I've spoiled the media," she said. "They're used to me running fast times every time I step on the track, and if it doesn't happen, there's something wrong. I was still winning races, but it was, 'What's wrong with Marion?'

"It was actually kind of funny. In the beginning, I was thinking, 'They don't understand. You're an athlete. You're not going to run fast every single time.' But I have to agree in general, I do want to get back there."

Jones won her second successive world 100-meter title in 1999, but a back injury kept her out of the 200 and kept her off the relays. A year later at Sydney, as the world wondered if she was brave or foolish to enter five events, she won the 100 and 200 and ran on the triumphant 1,600-meter relay. She won bronze in the 400-meter relay and the long jump.

Her medal haul was a disappointment to no one but her, especially since she also had to deal with the disclosure her husband, C.J. Hunter, had tested positive for an anabolic steroid and was suspended from international competition. Hunter and Jones later separated and have not reconciled.

As much as she appreciates the gold medals, she looks at the long jump bronze and wonders if she could do better, even though she won't jump again until next year.

"That's a bit of motivation, to want to go back to Athens and try to win the gold medal in the long jump," she said. "Elite athletes, our brains work in one mode, and that's winning. Silver, sure, it might be great for a lot of people and they might be able to go home to their hometown and people would celebrate their accomplishment. Marion coming in second or third place, it doesn't sit well with Marion. It never has."

Having lived in a media fishbowl by declaring her plans two years before the Sydney Games, Jones isn't ready to disclose her Athens intentions yet.

"But you could pretty much bet your first-born child I'm going to run the 100 meters and 200 and be a member of one or two relays," she said. "What else I do after that, that's going to be the question at hand. I'll really be able to answer that in 2003."

Jones, who skipped the indoor season but kept busy doing TV commentary on basketball and track events, said she's fitter now than a year ago. She looked radiant Monday, and not because of her makeup and cleverly styled hair.

"I feel light and I feel ready to run fast," she said. "You get me on that track in Walnut, California, and I usually am revving to go."

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