There was a pause, and Marion Jones's eyes filled with tears. She turned away from reporters, seeking shelter in somebody's shoulder, trying to hide what everyone knew was coming. Her lips quivered. She couldn't speak. LaTasha Colander rubbed her back. Lauryn Williams squeezed her hand.
The centerpiece of the Summer Games four years ago, Jones shrank Friday night, becoming just another athlete who tried as hard as she could but lost. It was a long fall, and Jones hit the ground hard.
Minutes after she and Williams muffed a handoff that prevented the U.S. team from so much as finishing the Olympic 4x100 relay, and nearly two hours after ending up in fifth place in the long jump, ensuring that she would leave these Games without a single medal, the woman who flashed nothing but steel and defiance throughout a chaotic year finally dissolved.
"She's a warrior," Colander said, defensively, to reporters, as Jones, 28, cried. "I want y'all to know that. Y'all been on her from beginning to end, but the USA team is going to stick with her. . . . The Olympics is not always the win. It's the struggle, the journey to get there. This journey has been very tough for her."
While Tim Mack and Toby Stevenson dueled it out in the pole vault, providing the United States with a 1-2 finish in its second straight Games, Jones and her relay teammates held hands, wiped tears from reddened eyes and grappled with what had happened.
"When I woke up this morning, this is not the way I figured the day would end," Jones said. "I will go home now and regroup and get ready for next year. We would love to go back out there and do it all again.
"I've never been one to make excuses and I won't start now. It just didn't happen for me today."
It was a different story for Mack, 31, who began his collegiate career at tiny Malone College in Canton, Ohio, and sealed the gold by clearing an Olympic record 19-61/4 after two misses.
Stevenson, 27, a demonstrative performer known for wearing a black protective helmet, led the competition for most of the night.
He celebrated one successful vault by playing air guitar on his pole, but he could go no higher than 19-41/4.
"That was incredible," Stevenson said.
"I knew coming in everybody was going to bring their 'A' game, and everybody brought it, including Tim Mack and including myself. Am I disappointed with a silver medal? Hell, no."
Jones often has mustered a similar optimism in previous run-ins with defeat, but Friday she looked out of fuel. This was the Olympics and she had not merely struggled, she failed.
"It's exceeded my wildest dreams in a negative sense," she said.
At the 2000 Sydney Games, she tried for five gold medals and ended up with three gold and two bronze.
A year later, she divorced her shot putter husband who had tested positive for steroids, then 14 months ago had a baby with sprinter Tim Montgomery.
At the July U.S. Olympic Trials, she failed to qualify for the 100, finishing fifth in her heat. Citing exhaustion and difficulty coming back after pregnancy, she did not compete in the 200.
She found herself entangled in the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) drug scandal, which has resulted in bans or warnings to about a dozen athletes. Though she has not been formally charged and has denied wrongdoing, she has ties to BALCO and has been under investigation by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for months.
Now, of course, this.
Jones's night started promisingly in the long jump. Though she fouled on her first attempt, she came back with a jump of 22 feet 53/4 inches.
Jones, however, could not go farther. Her final attempt was her worst of the night, 21-9.
She fell eight inches short of a medal. She had two fouls. Three Russians swept the event, led by Tatyana Lebedeva, who won with a leap of 23-21/2.
"I can sit here and say the fouls I had were long, but nobody cares about that," Jones said.
"You don't get a mark. The Russians, they deserve to have swept. The rest of us, we didn't challenge them, and I was included in that bunch."
A medal in the relay, however, had seemed a certainty. In Thursday's semis, the U.S. women, who had trained together at several relay camps, won by about 40 meters.
Friday, Angela Williams got off with a fast first leg and a smooth handoff to Jones, who ran hard for about 80 meters before decelerating a bit as she approached Lauryn Williams, the Olympic 100 silver medal winner.
Lauryn Williams took off a split second too early, her eyes focused straight ahead. Jones reached with the baton toward Williams's outstretched hand, but she could not close the gap. By the time the exchange was made, it was too late. They were out of the handoff zone.
"The baton didn't get around," Jones said. "That's pretty obvious. I don't even know what happened . . . . It was a rough one."
"I just made a few mistakes, that's all," Lauryn Williams said. "I did leave too early."
There was jubilation at the finish. The Jamaican team anchored by 200 Olympic champion Veronica Campbell set a national record in 41.73 seconds. Russia finished second, and France, third.
Meantime, Colander walked with Lauryn Williams and Jones down the homestretch, arm in arm.
"We're going to head out of here with our heads up, knowing that we did the best we could today," Jones said.
After more than 30 minutes in front of cameras, tape recorders and notebooks, Jones and her teammates reached the end of a long line of reporters.
One last question, someone said, asking Jones how the demands of motherhood had affected her. Jones, who had by then recovered from her earlier breakdown, looked momentarily dazed.
Once again, she couldn't speak. Her forehead wrinkled and her eyes welled up and she turned and rushed away.