London 2012: Lolo Jones seeks the perfect finish to her unique story

EUGENE, Ore. — The cameras will find Lolo Jones.

She’ll be surrounded by others who are more accomplished. The reigning national champion will be in the 100-meter hurdles field Saturday. The gold medalist from the 2008 Olympics will be there, too. As will the 2004 gold medal winner.

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But the cameras will find Jones.

Even though Bruce Jenner and the “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” camera crew are in town, Jones is still among the biggest stars at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials.

Though she’s nearly four years removed from her best time, Jones’s celebrity has skyrocketed in recent weeks, ever since the 29-year old hurdler told reporter Mary Carillo on HBO’s “Real Sports” last month that maintaining her virginity is “the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

“Harder than training for the Olympics, harder than graduating from college has been trying to stay a virgin for marriage,” she said.

Suddenly, Jones’s star transcended sports. She became fodder for TMZ and was fielding messages via Twitter from actor Gabrielle Union, athlete Terrell Owens and reality star Donald Trump.

“It’s just been crazy,” said Brandon Swibel, her marketing agent.

She’s scheduled to appear on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” on Monday, two days after the 100-meter hurdles finals. She’s hoping she’ll have good news to share, but there’s no guarantee, as Jones must survive one of the most competitive events at these trials.

Only the top three finishers will earn spots on the Olympics team. Eight other Americans have posted faster times than Jones this season, and five others are within six-hundredths of a second of her.

Jones’s first run at these trials provided cause for concern. She finished third in her quarterfinal heat Friday evening with a time of 13.01 seconds. Of the 21 hurdlers who advanced to Saturday’s semifinals, Jones had posted only the 15th-best time.

“I just know there’s a lot of room for improvement,” she said following her race.

Regardless, the spotlight gravitates toward Jones’s story: Her mother juggled jobs to keep her six children fed. Jones attended eight schools in eight years, and at one point the family lived in the basement of a Salvation Army church. Still, Jones’s Olympic dream never wavered.

Mix in her openness discussing her Christian faith and her virginity, and brand experts say Jones brings an unbeatable formula to potential sponsors and fans alike.

“There’s a tradition around identifying personalities who are very much creatures of a particular Olympic period,” said Adam Hanft, an accomplished marketing veteran who has worked with clients as varied as Sony and Match.com. “She could have the perfect storm of media hunger and a unique story in our hypersexualized environment.”

Hanft explains that while Jones’s personal back story connects easily with people, her virginity attracts an even broader audience. As with Tim Tebow and his large following, fans root for the person more than the athlete, and Jones’s virginity invites in a large number who might otherwise tune out sports.

“The Olympics themselves is about self-discipline,” Hanft said. “There’s a lot of coverage of how athletes are these extraordinary rigorous and disciplined creatures. You can argue that abstinence is sort of the avatar of self-discipline.”

Jones hasn’t yet taken on new sponsors, largely because her dance card was filled, Swibel said. She already had relationships with Asics, Red Bull, McDonald’s, Oakley and BP among others.

Swibel, though, has fielded requests from morning news programs, late-night talk shows, 24-hour news networks, and churches and other faith-based groups.

The general public flocked to her, too. Before the “Real Sports” segment, Jones had 52,000 followers on Twitter. She now has more than 125,000. She used to respond to every person who sent her a message, but that’s become impossible in recent weeks.

The lasting impact of this intensifying interest hinges largely on one thing: that Jones actually makes the Olympic team.

She missed the cut in 2004 but was a favorite in Beijing in ’08. In the finals, she was leading the pack and just 19 meters from the finish line when she hit the ninth hurdle, ending her medal hopes.

Her fellow competitors say they don’t mind if the camera gravitates toward Jones. Attention cast on her is still attention that’s cast on their sport.

“If I come from an athlete standpoint and say, ‘Yeah, she’s getting more attention than the reigning Olympic champion, she’s getting more attention than the U.S. national champion from last year . . . I would say, ‘Dang, what about the love for everybody else?’ ” said Joanna Hayes, the 2004 gold medalist and one of Jones’s competitors Saturday. “But then I’d say, ‘Well, she has this story that she’s able to capitalize off of.’ At the end of the day, Lolo may or may or not make the team, but I have to make the team. So I can’t worry about it.”

Jones’s handlers hope her story has staying power and is relevant beyond the Summer Games. First, though, Jones will have to actually punch her ticket to London, and the stopwatch in Eugene doesn’t care about Twitter followers, television appearances or sponsorship dollars.

Notes: Galen Rupp is returning to the Olympics after setting a new trials record in the men’s 10,000 meters Friday evening, finishing a rain-soaked race in 27 minutes 25.33 seconds. Also qualifying for London were second-place finisher Matt Tegenkamp (27:33.94) and Dathan Ritzenhein (27:36.09). . . .

In the women’s 10,000 meters, Amy Hastings (31:58.36), Natosha Rogers (31:59.23) and Shalane Flanagan (31:59.69) were the top finishers. Rogers lacks the required “A” standard time, though, and Flanagan has said she’ll compete in the marathon, for which she’s already qualified — not the 10,000 meters — in London. Fourth-place finisher Lisa Uhl (32:03.46) and seventh-place finisher Janet Cherobon-Bawcom (32:17.06) both had previously achieved the “A” standard and will join Hastings in London. . . .

After five events of the decathlon, Ashton Eaton had 4,728 points and a comfortable 322-point lead over second-place Trey Hardee and a 476-point advantage over Bryan Clay, the reigning Olympic champion who finished the day in third. Eaton set two world records for decathletes in Friday’s events, running the 100 meters in 10.21 seconds and posting a long jump of 27 feet.

 
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