Patricia Sheridan's Breakfast With ... Marion Jones
Marion Jones, left, participates in a basketball clinic at a high school in Belgrade, Serbia, earlier this month as part of a U.S. State Department program, presenting lectures and basketball clinics to young adults.
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Disgraced former Olympian Marion Jones served a six-month prison term for lying to federal investigators about taking a performance enhancing drug called "clear" before track competition. She won five medals in the 2000 Summer Olympics and had to return them. In 2007, she finally admitted taking the drug.
Her 2010 book, "On the Right Track," is a candid account of how prison changed her. After her release she played in the WNBA with the Tulsa Shock. Now 36, she was cut by the team in July and is back home in Austin, Texas. As one of the guest speakers at the eighth annual Pennsylvania Conference for Women in Philadelphia on Tuesday, she will talk about dealing with her mistakes and making a new life for herself, her husband and their two children. She created the program "Take a Break," which encourages young people to think before they act.
You made the decision to remain in the public eye after serving your prison sentence, but did you realize it would mean having to talk about your mistakes over and over?
I mean, I knew that from now until the day that I'm not here anymore it's going to be part of my legacy. But I didn't really think about it. What I thought about when I made the decision to not just disappear and live a quiet, normal life was that every day I teach my kids that we all make mistakes, but it's what you do after you've made the mistake. If I'm telling them that every day and if they would have seen me just disappear, and just kind of give up, then I could have been seen by them as a hypocrite.
I want to live what I teach. It is one of the reasons I decided to pursue my dream of playing basketball again and to continue to speak, even if it's about stuff that's not all that comfortable to deal with. Ultimately I want my kids to say, 'You know what? Mom made mistakes but she didn't just give up, she decided to make a difference.'
You wrote that keeping the secret was more damaging to you than telling the truth?
Yeah, that was the hardest part, just knowing in the back of your mind that at some point everything that I've worked for can be taken away and not feeling that I could share anything that was going on with the people who supported me, loved me. It's very hard. Anybody knows from the age of 4 on up that holding onto a secret or a lie is not an easy thing to do. So comparing it with the moment I actually shared with the world and my family, yeah that was hard, but it was more of a relief than anything. It was OK now that it's out there.
I lost a whole lot but I'm in a good spot now. I think now I'm in a much better place emotionally, spiritually. I am happy in my life. There is peace in my life and before all this I can certainly say there was no peace.
You have said that you started to run because in a way you were trying to get over your father leaving when you were young. Is that true?
No, that's kind of been taken out of context. You know I ran for a lot of reasons. I remember years ago wanting to get the attention of my biological father and thinking that if I ran and I was successful then he would reach out to me and want to be a part of my life. That never happened, but that's not the reason I began running and not the reason I continued to.
I wanted to prove to my mom that I'm a success and that all your sacrifice, all the traveling, you know, working three and four jobs just to send me to camp was not for nothing. Just a lot of different reasons.
What was the most difficult aspect of your decision to finally tell the truth?
By that point I had a child. I had my son and I just loved being a mom. I started to realize more and more that everything I do, say, not do, not say at some point can and will affect him. You just look at your child and you don't want to hurt him.
You know it just started to weigh heavily on me. If I continue to hold onto this and it affects me physically and emotionally and I'm not able to be the best me for him then it's not good.
In those initial days of dealing with the shame and humiliation, who or what did you lean on to get you through?
Oh gosh, my husband. My husband was just my rock. And our faith that God will see us through all of this. I'm a big believer that God doesn't give us much more than we can handle in life.
I just knew things had to get better. From the hardest moment being incarcerated, being away from my kids -- I leaned on that. The hard part is not knowing when this is gonna turn around, but my faith that things will get better -- they have to -- is what helped me get through.
You've said prison was a blessing because you used it to re-evaluate what's important in life. But did you always have such a strong faith?
I mean I believed in God. I think I got caught up. I achieved so much success, so quickly. I had a lot of success as a young person, but after I graduated from college, I went from the track world knowing this young person named Marion Jones to the world knowing about me almost overnight. I'm not being cocky saying that. Really, 12 weeks out from graduating from college, you know, the fastest runner in the world and my life just changed dramatically.
Maybe that's just immaturity. It really wasn't until I was incarcerated [that faith became important]. I had a small group of friends and my family and that was my support system. I had nothing else. I couldn't call out. I couldn't get a hug. There was no type of physical interaction or any type of interaction for however many days I was in solitary. You find out really quick there's nobody else to turn to except for Him. By the time I was at the lowest of lows, I had him to lean on. Yeah I knew my family and friends loved me and were praying for me, but in that small room by myself for 24 out of 24 hours a day thank goodness I had that part of it figured out before I got there.
Was it claustrophobic?
I wouldn't use 'claustrophobic.' I felt so helpless. I don't know, the words fail to come to me right now. I just felt like I had really made a mess out of a lot of stuff. I was thankful I had the time to figure it out. It's still a process for me. I still deal with this guilt of knowing that I hurt so many people. It's hard but as you mentioned, I believe it was a blessing. I had nothing but time to figure out, 'OK the mistakes have been made and I'll probably make more, but the big ones have been made. Now what are you going to do Marion? Start your life pretty much over, but is that all that you want to do?
In the book you talk about what an ugly experience it was to be in there. You came through it with a positive outlook. Did you feel like, 'OK I'm paying for my crime being in here so that's that?'
[Laughs] Yeah, in one sense I certainly, you know, I haven't shared this with a lot of people, but I felt at times, gosh why me? That certainly came to my mind. But generally I would come back to Marion you messed up. I made the mistake but the judge decides. I made the mistakes and I say it over and over again. Patricia, I tell my kids all the time if you make a mistake don't point to your brother, don't point to your sister, if you did it, you did it. Right? I teach my kids do the right thing and that's how I want to live.
Well that takes courage. Easy to say but doing it is harder.
Over and over again when I have to get out of my bed and travel across the country knowing that people want me to speak, but the reason they want me to speak is to talk about my experiences and that is not easy. I know I'm making a living and that's great but it's not easy. But what makes it worth it a lot of times, Patricia, is when a parent or a young person gets what I'm trying to say. You've probably heard of "Take A Break" and when a person comes up to you and says, "Hopefully we'll remember when we are in a situation affected by peer pressure to slow down to take a break, take a step back," it was worth it.
Do you believe you could have won as many medals without the drugs?
Yes, yes, yes. No doubt. I don't have a doubt. And people who know the sport, who are sports people, they'll tell you the same thing. So that's why it's so unfortunate that I got caught, caught up. You just get caught up and I didn't take a break and it just cost me so much. I tell people the medals can be gone, the fortune can be gone but in my heart I know I would have won. I would have been Olympic champion.
First Published October 24, 2011 12:00 am