Lolo Jones has played just about every role an Olympian can be expected to inhabit: gold-medal favorite, tragic bust, plucky comeback, crestfallen loser, over-hyped diva, resolute dreamer.
The one thing she cannot be called is a medal winner.
Which brings Jones to Sochi, where her long, widely critiqued quest for an Olympic medal will culminate this week, when she debuts as a Winter Games bobsled brakeman. She will push for driver Jazmine Fenlator in Tuesday’s first heats in an underdog run at the podium. In their two training runs on Sunday, Jones and Fenlator finished 10th and 8th.
With the expectations (if not the attention) muted, Jones said her experience in Sochi is “completely different” from her flameouts in Beijing and London.
“There’s no pressure,” she told the Associated Press.
Once one of the world’s top hurdlers, Jones, 31, barely made the U.S. Olympic bobsled team, landing a final roster spot last month, less than two years after she first picked up the sport in the aftermath of her second Summer Olympics failure. Her selection prompted a backlash, not only from the more experienced athletes who were passed over, but from skeptics who saw a ploy to bring more attention to bobsledding, and more American viewers.
The officials behind the decision say those factors, while beneficial, had nothing to do with their pick, that Jones had earned it.
Jones herself said such speculation was an insult to her athletic abilities and work ethic — and reflects the mistaken assumption that bobsled braking was easy.
That debate helps to explain the bind in which Jones finds herself in Sochi.
“Even if she wins gold people will still roll their eyes,” said Ato Bolden, a four-time Olympic medal-winning sprinter who is in Sochi as an analyst for NBC. “People have already made up their minds about Lolo in a way that’s almost unfair.”
Many other track and field athletes have switched from running to bobsled after being recruited to a sport that values compact, rhythmic athletes who can accelerate quickly from a dead start. One of Jones’ teammates is brakeman Lauryn Williams, a two-time track medalist who could become the second person to win gold in both the summer and winter Olympics in different sports. Williams only picked up bobsledding in July, but she has a much less provocative public persona than Jones — and is considered a stronger medal contender.
Jones and Fenlator have been teamed together three times on the World Cup circuit this season, and failed to win medals.
Jones — outspoken, attractive, self-deprecating and self-absorbed — has a way of attracting the extremes of public scrutiny.
Her personal story, growing up poor and, for a time, homeless, fueled her rise to attention in 2008, when she was the favorite to win the 100m hurdles in London. But she inexplicably clipped the second-to-last hurdle, and finished seventh.
Against steep odds, she made the U.S. team again in 2012. Her quest for redemption — along with provocative magazine photo shoots, a cheeky Twitter feed and an open discussion of her virginity — sucked up much of the Olympics publicity, to great criticism. She finished fourth in the hurdlers, missing a bronze medal by a tenth of a second.
After a bout of depression, Jones picked up bobsled in fall of 2012, hoping for a fresh start — and of course, that elusive Olympic medal.
On Tuesday, she will become one of 10 Americans to compete in both the Summer Games — two of them, in her case - and Winter Games.
That’s an important point to remember, Bolden said, no matter what you think of her.
“Despite people talking about what she hasn’t done," he said, "if you look what she has done, it is pretty remarkable.”