Saturday will be an interesting day for LSU fans. A season few expected to be more than mediocre became remarkable, with the Tigers earning a place in the SEC Championship Game. Before the game kicks off, there’s another great event happening right across the street featuring LSU track legend Lolo Jones as a judge. We got a chance to talk to her about her journey as a runner and bobsledder as well as some more info on Saturday’s big event.
When did you start running track and why?
I started running track in middle school and I don’t know why I started, really. I was more of a basketball player, and I think I was just doing it just to hang out with friends. The real question is why did I become a hurdler, and it’s because nobody wanted to run the hurdles because everybody kept falling and getting scars and bleeding and so I was the only one for the team that volunteered to do the hurdles.
During high school, how did your support system motivate you to succeed?
I was one of the athletes that didn’t really have a strong support system because my dad was in and out of prison my whole childhood, my mom was a single mom to five kids so there was no support system, really. I used sports as my support system, I used sports to give me a structure because after school, instead of watching TV for hours, I had regular practices and I had organization and I had the community of a team to give me friendships and stability. Really, it was more about track providing me the stability in my life when other things were very unstable.
When did the process of getting noticed by colleges start?
I started getting a lot of letters my sophomore year of high school. I was one of the best athletes in the state of Iowa, and the letters were coming from everywhere. It was when LSU started to recruit me that things just kinda blew up. LSU track and field is the top of the top for NCAA track and field, they’re like Duke basketball, their legacy is unprecedented, so once they started recruiting me, everybody started trying to recruit me and I had a really hard decision because my grades were really good in high school, so I could’ve gone Ivy League, but I was also gonna try and make a stab at being an Olympic athlete, so it was really hard trying to figure it out that young. But LSU has been life-changing for me, I’ve made three Olympic teams, broke the American record, became one of the few athletes to win a world championship in a summer and winter sport, so it’s been crazy.
What were some of the challenges you faced adjusting from going to high school in Iowa to going to college in Louisiana?
Coming from the Midwest to the South, they’re two different cultures from the way people talk to even the things people eat and the temperatures. There’s four seasons in the Midwest, and there’s really one or two in the South. The way they spell things, when I came down here, their tagline is “Geaux Tigers,” but it’s spelled “g-e-a-u-x,” so I was like “what is this ‘gi-o’ thing I’m seeing everywhere?” I didn’t even know how to say it because they use a lot of French wording. And the food, growing up in Iowa, there’s not really access to fresh seafood, and I was introduced to gumbo, crawfish etouffee, jambalaya, things I’d never even heard of. So the transition, it was really culturally different to be in the South.
How was the transition from being a high school athlete and a college athlete?
Any time you’re going from being a high school athlete to a D1 athlete, the transition’s always going to be rough just because you’re thrown into a wildfire, you’re training with freshmen all the way up to these dominant seniors that are about to go pro. You just gotta keep up. When I arrived at LSU, my coach recruited three of the other best hurdlers in the U.S., and I just knew one of us was gonna lose a scholarship at the end of it, so it’s a dogfight, it’s really hard, you gotta stay focused because most collegians your age are in college, they’re away from their family for the first time, they wanna start partying. Well when you’re an athlete, you have different priorities and you have to stay focused.
What was it like when you won your first team national championship (2002 Indoor)?
It was insane and we went back-to-back-to-back [in indoor track], we won multiple while I was there. Track and field is unique because in college, it’s one of the rare times you compete as a team score. Even though when you go to the Olympics, it is technically a team, but it’s not scored. But in college, it’s actually scored like an overall points system like a basketball game, so running collegiate track is still some of the funnest years of my life compared to even the Olympics.
In 2004, you fail to qualify for the Olympics and at that point, you’re considering quitting the sport. There’s a famous story of you going to then-assistant Dennis Shaver and talking about your concerns and him saying “I’ll see you at practice tomorrow.” What did he do to help keep you motivated and what did that mean to you?
He basically changed my life in that moment. He was the assistant coach at the time, he’s now the head coach. For me, I just thought I’d put the effort in and I tried and I came up short and so I just thought “well maybe I’m just not meant or I don’t have the talent to be an Olympic athlete.” But sometimes, that’s not the case, it just might be too early or it’s not your season yet, so he just instilled in me a fight and not to give up when things don’t look like they’re going your way, and it’s not like things changed overnight. I showed up the next day at practice and it was a hard practice, I still had tears in my eyes from not making the Olympic team, trying to put that embarrassment aside and dig deep, and not only did I have to dig deep that day, the next four years, I had to press in because the Olympics only comes every four years, so that’s what we did.
What was it like finally breaking through and making the Olympics in 2008?
Still to this day, that’s probably one of the happiest days of my life because any time you make an Olympic team and you now go from “oh, I might be good enough to be an Olympian” to not only are you good enough to be one of the best in the world, you’re gonna be representing thousands of people sitting at home watching the Olympics and you’re representing your country. There’s no higher honor as an athlete, so it’s life changing.
Speaking of changes, how did you get started with bobsledding?
In 2008, when I made the Olympic team, not only did I make the Olympic team, I became the best hurdler in the world overnight. People went from “oh, she might make this Olympic team” to “she might break the world record.” I went to Beijing and was winning the finals, hit a hurdle that cost me Olympic gold, and so I was devastated. So I wait another four years to go to another Olympics, make that team, and not only do I make that team, I got fourth [in the 100m hurdles final] with a time that would’ve earned a medal at any other Olympics. So I was just really discouraged because I’d done everything I could to get this Olympic medal and two times, it had evaded me. So I was like “oh, my heart’s just broken, I don’t know if I really have it in me to run, but I still have the fire and desire to compete.” Bobsled had been recruiting me for a while because they knew I was fast and so they asked me to come out and I went out and just loved the sport and was able to make the Olympic team in a year and a half after that because the Winter Olympics are not the same year as Summer Olympics. So I was like “oh, this is a good gameplan, I don’t have to wait every four years for an Olympics, I can just wait every two.”
Was it a different feeling making your first Winter Olympics compared to making your first Summer Olympics?
Yeah, because at this point, it’s always like your first one, you make, it is just so unreal. The second Olympic team I made, I still appreciate so much because I had spine surgery the year before, so everybody counted me out. And then making the Winter Olympic team was special to me because only 11 Americans have made a Summer and Winter Olympics, so to transform my body from the skinny track athlete and to put on the muscle mass and basically change my body from a wide receiver to a linebacker was really difficult, but I did it and not only did I do it, I made an Olympic team. So there’s moments to be proud of in each Olympic team.
What do you want your career to show to others?
I think what I want my career to show people is, because they always look to Olympians, everybody’s obviously motivated by the Olympics and the medals that are won, but my fight shows that even though I don’t have this Olympic medal, I’ve been one of the best in the world. I’m a world champion, which means you’re the best in the world in your sport, I’m the best in track and field and in bobsled, so I try to show people that even with your failures, those failures motivate you to do amazing things. Being one of the 11 people to break history and be a Summer and Winter Olympian, there’s no medal for that, there’s only 11 people that have achieved that, there’s no medal that was given to me to do this huge accomplishment. There are, I think, thousands of Olympic medalists, so I try to push people to just see how much they’ve overcome and how much their failures can actually really motivate them to achieve great things if they don’t give up.
Speaking of greatness, there’s the Johnsonville Titanium Tongsman contest this weekend, what is that?
This is going to be an epic battle. The Southeastern Conference, we throw down on tailgating, we just do everything really big. This is gonna be a huge competition. Sadly, you can’t enter anymore, the deadline’s closed, but they’ve narrowed it down to the last two that are gonna battle it out and it’s open for people to come out, it’s like a tailgate vibe, there’s gonna be free Johnsonville sausages and I’m gonna be one of the judges that’s gonna help decide who is throwing down the hardest.
Where’s it going to be and when?
It’s right across the street from the stadium at the Georgia International Plaza outside the Georgia World Congress Center. If anybody’s in Atlanta for the game, they should stop by, they can grab free sausages and they can check out the Titanium Tongsman Contest, it starts Saturday at 12:30, I’ll be out there earlier. These people are gonna be battling it out and trying to be the Johnsonville Titanium Tongsman champion.