Marion Jones reflects on prison stay
AUSTIN, Texas -- Marion Jones wants you to know she's sorry.
Not so much about the performance-enhancing drugs she took -- unknowingly, she says -- when she was the most famous and lauded track athlete in the world, a winner of five medals at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, medals she no longer owns.
What Jones really wants you to know is she's sorry for lying to federal investigators about her drug use. That, and her role in a check-fraud scam, are what landed her in prison for six months in 2008, during which she spent a month and a half in solitary confinement after fighting another inmate.
"I surely wish that I could go back and change certain things in my past, on one hand, but then I wouldn't be who I am today, someone who I'm actually really proud of," Jones said in an interview with The Associated Press, her gaze steady. "If I hadn't gone through certain things, and because I had those six months or whatever -- just a lot of quiet time -- if I hadn't gone through it, I don't know if I would ever have that much time to reflect. A lot of people don't."
Jones also wants you to know how that self-reflection changed her as a person. Her priorities, her goals, the way she defines success, the way she makes decisions each day -- all are rather different now, due in part to what she says is her faith. She emphasized that repeatedly during an hour-long interview with the AP at a park near a school her children attend, and in her new book, "On the Right Track," which comes out Tuesday and quotes several biblical passages.
"My story is unique, in that the first part of my life, my journey, I hit the pinnacle of my career, and it was a very public career, and then I made decisions that cost me all of that," Jones said. "And so I was at that low point. But I didn't give up. I kind of developed a way to get out of that, and I'm on my way back up."
Sitting on a wooden bench facing the park's pond, Jones, who turned 35 this month, still looks like an elite athlete. She played for the WNBA's Tulsa Shock last season, but isn't certain if she will be asked to return for another. One thing's for sure: She can still flash that famous wide smile -- the one so familiar to anyone who followed her feats on the track a decade ago.
Her 213-page book, written with Maggie Greenwood-Robinson, is based in part on letters Jones wrote to her husband, Obadele Thompson, while she was in a federal prison in Fort Worth. The book contains a harrowing depiction of Jones' stay.
"I didn't have a sentence that was a slap on the wrist. I wasn't sentenced to an institution that I kicked back in a hammock for my time there," she said, punctuating that point with a chuckle. "It was tough."
Jones writes about fearing her life was in danger during a five-minute tussle with a roommate. Jones says she emerged uninjured, but the other woman's face "was bruised and bloody."
I surely wish that I could go back and change certain things in my past, on one hand, but then I wouldn't be who I am today, someone who I'm actually really proud of.” -- Marion Jones
In the interview, Jones called her ensuing trip to solitary confinement "probably the worst part of my life."
"There were moments while I was there, where you just feel like you cannot go on: 'How in the world can I make it to tomorrow?' " Jones said.
She writes in depressing detail about prison conditions and specific personnel; about inmates using empty toilet paper rolls threaded through toilets as a sort of telephone; about being chained to her seat during a "ConAir" flight with other prisoners on a trip to another jailhouse.
"What transpired during the period when she was incarcerated was both a crucible but also a wonderful opportunity," said Thompson, who won a bronze medal for Barbados in the 100 meters at the Sydney Games and married Jones in 2007. "She's not one of these people who's bitter. She's not spiteful. She's not looking to get even with anyone. She's just turned it into something positive. She's used it to take the next steps in life, to rebuild."
In doing so, Jones has written a book that can serve as something of a self-help manual.
In it, Jones describes her "Take a Break" philosophy, which she discusses when she visits schools around the country, something she first did as part of her probation and now does on her own.
"By helping people, it's a form of healing for myself, because I hurt so many people. I know that," she said. "I still struggle with knowing that I let a lot of people down. I disappointed a lot of people that love and care for me, worldwide, and when I think about that it kind of gives me the motivation to kind of keep going on."
The gist of "Take a Break" is simple: Before making an important decision or taking an action you might later wish you hadn't, force yourself to pause and consider what's right. Jones did not do that on the day in November 2003, when she lied to an assistant U.S. attorney and federal agent Jeff Novitzky of BALCO fame about whether she had taken performance-enhancing drugs.
When she was shown a vial of liquid by Novitzky, she realized it was "the clear," the designer steroid she'd taken before the Sydney Olympics. But she denied it.
"I made a decision that took less than 45, 30 seconds," she said, snapping her fingers, "to lie, to lie to them. And that was my crime."
Jones is repentant about the doping, too, but she's sticking to her story: Her error there, she insists, was not being more skeptical of people around her, specifically her coach, and not finding out exactly what was going into her body at the time.
"Sure, it was my choice to take it without asking any questions," said Jones, who publicly denied for years that she'd used steroids, "but it was never my intent to take it."
Similarly, she writes, she endorsed a check she received from former husband Tim Montgomery, another track star, "without asking questions" and later "lied about my knowledge of the check and Tim's involvement in the scheme."
She's so adamant about not detailing that part of her life nowadays that she didn't name any names during the interview.
In the book, she writes: "Yes, I took a performance-enhancing drug and I can't go back and undo any of it. What happened, happened. I'm not holding anyone responsible for the fact that I'm the one who put it in my body. ... Nobody forced me."
Jones does want to clear something up for people who think she went to prison for taking performance-enhancing drugs.
"That's not the case," she said. "I went to federal prison because I lied. That's my crime. I could look back and I can say, 'Gosh, I wish I wouldn't have been so trusting.' But I really wish I wouldn't have lied. That's my regret."
Later, discussing her imprisonment, Jones said: "You talk about a tiny, little lie, and it gets you here. There's nothing tiny about not doing the right thing. It can really have you land in some of the worst places you could ever imagine."
She knows, of course, that her book would draw more attention, not to mention sell more copies, if it were filled with revelations about performance-enhancers.
But the book does not delve into those areas, and Jones is upfront about that in Chapter 2: "I should be clear about why I'm writing this book. If you picked it up looking for salacious details about doping and drug scandals, I guess you should put it back on the shelf."
Jones was approached about telling a more sensational tale, but says she never considered doing so.
"When people look at this, they might think it's a tell-all, it's one of those books that you see celebrities or maybe athletes write after they have just done something horrible. It's much different than that," she said.
"It might temporarily help the author get paid," she added, "but after a while, that story, your story, is not benefiting anybody."
The book ends with a chapter entitled "Blessed," and the final paragraph begins, "I don't want to be remembered for the records I broke, the races I won, or the medals I lost. I want to be remembered for the very worst mistake I ever made and how I turned it into a life-affirming positive for the world."
Asked to explain why she closed her book that way, Jones smiled.
"You can remember me winning races, winning medals, breaking records -- but how, then, is that going to help you in your day-to-day life?" she said. "By looking at me and looking my life and saying, 'Oh, she made some bad mistakes, but then how did she turn that around? How did she make life better for herself and people around her? How did she really make a mark and make a goal of helping?' That's what I really want people to get from all of this."
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press
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