Ask an athlete at which point tension feels the greatest and more often than not the answer is during the fifteen to twenty minutes spent in the call room, waiting to be led like gladiators into the arena.
American hurdler Lolo Jones confirmed that she had felt added pressure to perform after heavy favourite, world record holder, Susanna Kallur withdrew from the 60m hurdles competition on this the second day of the 12th IAAF World Indoor Championships citing a slight muscle tear. In the call room she wished American teammate Candice Davis good luck and then prepared herself for the battle.
“I wished Candice Davis good luck and then I was talking to myself more than anybody else,” she reveals with a long laugh. ”They probably thought I was loco!”
“Half of the time between the semi-final and final is spent on mental preparation. It’s telling yourself ‘you have done this all year, you can do it again.’ And you keep on telling yourself that. Because that’s where people lose the race it’s sitting in that call room for fifteen minutes.”
This indoor season has been a coming out party for the 25-year-old Baton Rouge, resident. She was the second fastest in the world with her time of 7.77 seconds. Only Kallur ran faster. Other than winning the 2007 US indoor championship the Louisiana State University graduate has been largely an also ran, not that a 6th place in last year’s World outdoor championships in Osaka is anything to be ashamed of.
But some things will change now.
“The only thing it’s going to help is when people announce my name at the beginning of a meet,” she concedes. “I mean, you know how they announce the athletes? it’s like "Michelle Perry - two time world champion’, It takes about five minutes to get through it and then it’s ‘Lolo jones lane 6.’ I will finally have something other than that.”
Clearly Jones possesses a self deprecating sense of humour which goes a long way in enhancing her popularity. From the dozens of Valencia school children whom she obliged with autographs and the volunteers with whom she happily posed for pictures following her race she was the model professional. When she finally made her way through the athlete/media 'Mixed Zone' to talk with the waiting press she was greeted by former World 100m champion Maurice Greene who gave her a hug. Waiting in the wings was her manager Mark Block.
She also received glowing praise from Susanna Kallur who sat in the athletes section during the hurdles final hoping her friend would emerge the victor.
“We were competing against each other in college,” Kallur said with a genuine smile. “ I went to the University of Illinois for three semesters and I competed against her in the nationals. So we have been seeing a lot of each other at the outdoor season and the previous indoor season. She is a great athlete. And we are good friends. Absolutely!”
The Swede’s withdrawal spoiled the victory somewhat for Jones’ and her outlook changed the moment she learned she was now the favourite. That moment came while giving a television interview following before the semi finals.
“You always expect to win,” Jones admits, “but then it’s a different ball game when you are running against the world record holder and she’s like a tenth of a second ahead of you.”
“I knew coming here I was going to run fast. This was when I though Susanna was running and that we would push each other to new national records so that’s what I was looking forward to, coming into the competition. Then when I found out she wasn’t running it was a whole different ball game because all the pressure that was on her was right on me.”
Jones refuses to be drawn into the theory that her Valencia victory will give her a psychological lift come the outdoor season. Quickly she points out 2007 World champion Michelle Perry was absent from these World championships and so to were others.
“I could name five people off the top of my head that didn’t run,” she declares, as if pleading to remain obscure. “Some of the girls who will be at the Olympics didn’t make (the final) like the Canadians. One girl got sick the night before (Angela Whyte), so she didn’t make it. Another one fell (Priscilla Lopes- Schliep). I will definitely take my medal. But............”
Then the girl who describes herself as a ‘house hermit” who watches television, plays video games and regularly goes to church rushes off to be taken to dinner by her shoe sponsors at Asics. But not without one final comment:
“My first medal is gold. How cool is that?”
Paul Gains for the IAAF