Contributions by Leah Fisher Nyfeler and Karen Little
Marion Jones is taking a break. After playing one season with the Tulsa Shock WNBA basketball team, she is heading into the Fall of 2011 not as a professional athlete, but as the Austin-based wife of Obadele Thompson and mother of three children, ages 3, 5, and 8.
“I was playing basketball with the Tulsa Shock and a couple of weeks ago I was waived, so I’m back here in Austin,” she said in a relaxed conversation on a bright and steamy Tuesday morning in north Austin. “Over the past few years, because of some really difficult times years ago, I developed this idea of Take a Break, of stepping back and thinking about the decisions that you make and the consequences they might have. I spend a lot of time speaking at schools and to young people all over the country.
Jones, who most people know as a sprinter, played basketball at the University of North Carolina, leading the Tar Heels to the 1994 National Championship. Today she calls Austin her home base and travels several times a month to speak to children and youth through her “Take a Break” program.
“I’m trying to make the Take a Break message known. It’s powerful and personal and I’m passionate about it. It’s my way of giving back. I made some poor decisions in my past, about a lot of things, and so many people along the way supported me and just loved on me. It’s the least I can do. I want to help people make better choices in their own lives, so I sacrifice some of mine to do that.
“This whole idea of winning and success is still very much a part of who I am. It’s different than it was 10 years ago, for a lot of reasons. I’m older, more mature, and you realize there are things that are more important than what you thought was important a decade ago. For me, it’s about how many people I can help. I don’t base it on how many, or how fast, or how many points. When I speak and young people come up to me, or their parents say to me, ‘Marion, thank you; we needed somebody to tell this little girl, x, y, and z because her life was headed in the wrong direction.’
“I’m at a point where if I’m able to change one person’s life so they don’t have to go down a certain path, or can make better choices to live a better life, then what I’m doing is worth it.”
“I like to tell the kids that I’m not one of those teachers or parents who tell you ‘don’t do this because you might wind up here,’” she said. “I’m one of those people who has lived it. I’ve been through it. I’m your example.”
She’s not kidding. Hailed as the fastest woman in the world at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, she was the first woman to win five medals in a single Olympic Games. And then, on October 5, 2007, she voluntarily pled guilty to one count of making false statements to federal agents about her use of performance-enhancing drugs and one count of making false statements to federal agents in connection with a separate check fraud case. Dick Pound, then chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and a member of the International Olympic Committee was quoted in the New York Times that day saying, “It’s the destruction of a heroine of the day.”
Jones was sentenced to six months in jail—the maximum sentence—and served the time at Carswell Federal Prison in Ft. Worth, including 48 days in solitary confinement after fighting with another prisoner according to her memoir, On The Right Track (Howard books © 2010). Her children were ages 5, 2, and 6 months when she voluntarily surrendered to serve her sentence on March 5, 2008.
The average person struggles to understand what Marion Jones was thinking.
“You have to, for a moment, take yourself away from what you know. Put yourself in a situation where you are the best of the best and you have surrounded yourself with people you absolutely believe would do nothing wrong—who have your back. And you fully rely on them. You make a decision based on giving your trust to somebody else. I made the choice not to ask questions of the people around me when they were saying things or giving me things. When I’m coached, I do what they say, I don’t ask why.
“I didn’t realize until the federal investigators slid it across the table and said that’s what it was,” she said. “In the span of 15 seconds I realized that what I had been taking was [a] performance-enhancing [substance].” Jones had been taking THG, also known as “The Clear,” a designer steroid. She said she had been told it was flaxseed oil.
“That’s the moment I can look back on and say I wish I had taken a break. I wish I had stopped for a second, consulted with my attorneys, and said ‘This is a bad situation. Help me out of this.’ Instead, I decided to continue to say ‘I don’t know what it is.’
“I realized at that moment if I said that it was [what I had taken], a lot would change. But what I didn’t realize was that a lot was going to change by not telling the truth. And a whole lot worse.”
Jones’ book vividly details the harrowing and humbling experience of serving time in prison. She pre-recorded messages for her children and prepared cards and gifts for friends and family to be sent while she was away. She taught an essay class to fellow inmates and navigated racial tensions by speaking Spanish and English to different groups. She found ways to work out daily and to fuel her positive attitude.
“When you’re young you think you have all the answers, and then something happens in your world and you realize you don’t. At some point everybody hits that moment. I think it’s what you do after that moment. You can certainly wallow in the deep, dark places of despair or you can figure out, ‘You know what, this happens to everybody. How am I going to make it better? How am I going to make someone else’s life better?’
“In some ways, it’s difficult for me to say, but so much of what I’ve been through is a blessing because it forced me to slow down and think about what’s important. I am not certain that if my world had not come crashing down that I would have slowed down enough to figure out what’s important in my life. A lot of times it takes something catastrophic.”
Engaging and charming in conversation, Jones’s down-to-earth demeanor can make you forget that she’s lived the superstar life, chatting up Oprah and Nelson Mandela, along with heads of state and celebrities with household names. Her passion for sport and competition still in tact, she channels much of it into her family life.
“My world is PTA and play dates and the gym. My gym is the Y because they have programs for kids, the family, and my husband can play basketball. I wouldn’t say we’re this ultra-fit family, but it’s what we know. It’s how we live. We’re the type of family that’s always on the go. We play, we run around, we have the Wii Fit. I’m an athlete; my husband is a former athlete. We love sports. We watch it on TV; we go to sporting events. We’re part of the community. My kids swim, play basketball, play soccer. I wouldn’t know it any other way."
Jones credits her life in athletics with refining the strength of her character.
“[Athletics] helped me mold it. I can certainly remember—when my mom was a single parent, taxi-ing me around to practices—being this not really shy, but quiet, reserved young girl who was trying to figure out her body and her world and how [she] fit into it. Over the years, sports helped me build my confidence, my character, and my mom was always there to make sure."
She acknowledges that her competitiveness is a force in all aspects of her life—including her motherhood. “It’s off the charts,” she confessed. “You don’t understand, when I stopped running and I had a couple of years of no professional sports, I had no outlet for something that I had been doing for most of my life. There’s only so many games of Boggle you can play. Basketball, for a while, offset that. But as a mom, it’s really tough.
“I want my kids to be armed with everything they need to just be great, at whatever it is. People ask ‘Are they going to be athletes?’ I don’t care if they’re athletes, really I don’t. But whatever they do, I want them to be great at it. It’s just who I am. I don’t do well with mediocrity. I want to expose them to as much as I can and let them find what they want to do.
“I understand, especially when they’re young, on their teams, it’s about playing fair and they don’t put the score on the scoreboard. My kids get so excited to get a trophy and I’m happy because they’re happy. Thankfully, in our family, you are rewarded when you deserve it. I’m concerned for the millions of other kids who don’t have that reinforcement at home; that every time you pay your 70 dollars you’re going to expect a trophy no matter what. I’m old school; that’s not how it happened in my day. It’s unfortunate. Kids are not going to crack because you don’t give them a trophy, because someone is better than them at something. They’ll be okay. They’re going to have to figure out ways to keep working, and keep trying. They’ll get it. This idea of ‘work hard and there are rewards’ is not as prevalent in team and kid sports. How can they learn from failure if they can’t see on the darn scoreboard who’s failing!
“That’s my world right now. My oldest will say, ‘We didn’t win that one. We were horrible today.’ Even my 3 year old, who played soccer last year, said, ‘We didn’t score any, and they scored 2. So that means we lost.’ ‘Yes, that means you lost. You guys played hard, but that means you lost. You guys gotta do better next time.’ There’s nothing wrong with saying that.
“It’s been a challenge for me to have to sit on my hands and bite my tongue. Like my oldest, and I don’t want to be too specific, but [only] recently has he shown any interest [in being] competitive. He’s a great kid, he’s sweet, lovable, caring and all that. It’s been a challenge for me to step back for a second and say, they’ve got to develop in their own way. I realize that everybody’s not me. My kids are not me. They’re a product of me, and I see certain parts of me in them, but they’re not me and they have to learn on their own. My husband and I can teach fair play and working hard, but at some point they have to figure their way out in the world.
Jones said exercise keeps her grounded.
“Exercise in general has always been my form of solitude. The way that I am able to best be me, to make the best decisions for my life, my family, my kids, my career, to be at peace with who I am. People are always surprised to hear that I deal with a lot of self-conscious issues about my body, little things you would probably be surprised by. I’ve heard other professional athletes say the same thing. We’re women. We still deal with certain issues.
“If I don’t get exercise on a daily basis, I am off somehow. I’ve said this before but even when I was away for the six months, it’s what helped get me through, in addition to my faith. That’s one of the reasons I said I can exercise anywhere. It has been my grounding force. I feel better about myself, my head is clear. It’s amazing what it can do besides just for your body. You wish more people got a taste of it. I think there would be less crime, there would be nicer people. We [in the fitness community] are all biased when it comes to that.”
Reflecting on her accomplishments, Jones shares an existential insight.
“My proudest accomplishment is finally realizing that my priority in life is not to be the fastest, strongest person in this world, but that my priority is God, family, and making people’s lives better. That absolutely is my biggest accomplishment, the realization, because some people never get it.”