September 17, 1999 Even when her energies were divided between basketball, track and field and college life at North Carolina, she was one of the most remarkable athletes in ACC history. Now that she's narrowed her focus to a full-time international track career, Marion Jones could become one of the most amazing athletes of her generation. Jones has the best performances in the world this year in three different track events
RALEIGH - Marion Jones bends her head slightly, zeroing in on the 100 meters before her.
In a moment, she's a blur. Her coach, Trevor Graham, yells for her to keep her focus on her technique. The speed is there but not the proper leg motion.
"That's one powerful human being," Graham says before turning to yell some more. Jones is an engine, still learning to fire.
That practice sprint at N.C. State's Paul Derr track is symbolic of the way Jones has become in a short span of time one of the world's best track athletes. Suddenly, she seems the best candidate for carrying the sport's torch the way Carl Lewis did in recent years. "I'm Marion Jones, not Carl Lewis," Jones said recently. "I don't want to worry right now about what might happen in the future."
Graham said Jones, who trains out of Apex, N.C., can break records in all three of her events: the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter and the long jump. And, perhaps, she can beat the 10.49-second record in the 100, set by track legend Florence Griffith Joyner, which has stood since 1988.
"All my life, I've always been involved in some type of activity," Jones said. "When I was a child, I was involved in everything from tee ball to gymnastics to ballet. I always professed to my family that I was going to be great at something. "I didn't know what it was at that time. But I knew whatever I put my mind to, I was going to be successful. No matter what it took." She certainly has honored that promise. Already Jones, 22, is being lauded as one of the top international track and field athletes. She was selected as Track & Field News magazine's 1997 world female athlete of the year, becoming the fourth U.S. woman to receive the honor. While at UNC, Jones became a three-event track All-American in the long jump, the 200-meter dash and the 400-meter (4x100) relay. Her leap of 22 feet, 1.75 inches as a freshman at the 1994 NCAA Outdoor Championships remains the longest jump in ACC history among women.
She also shared an NCAA women's basketball championship with her 1994 teammates at North Carolina, the school she decided to leave last spring to pursue a full-time career in track and field. "It was the hardest decision I've had to make, especially because of the young ladies that I've gotten to play (basketball) with. They were like my family," Jones said. "I think it's been a lot easier because I was so successful in track to watch basketball. Because I've experienced success, it's a lot easier to say that I made the right decision."
And her performances continue to show that track definitely was where she belonged.
In early May, Jones became history's second-fastest female sprinter with a sizzling 10.71 at a special sprint race in Chengdu, China. She has run a 21.76 in the 200 meters and owns this year's fastest time in that event at 21.98. Her leap of 7.05 meters (23 feet, one inch) in the long jump is also the best in the world this year. And she owns the fastest American time this season in the 400 meters (50.36). Last year, Jones had the two fastest times of the year in the 100 - her best, 10.76, matched the third-best ever - as well as the three best times in the 200. She was ranked No. 1 in the world in both events.
At the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships last June, where she won the 100 with a time of 10.97, she took the long jump title from another legend, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, 35, by leaping 22 feet, nine inches. Joyner-Kersee had won seven consecutive national long jump titles.
Later that summer, Jones won the 100 at a Grand Prix meet in Oslo, Norway, beating yet another legend, 1993 world champion Gail Devers. And she kept getting better.
Last August at the world championships in Greece, Jones earned the title of "fastest woman in the world" with a time of 10.83 in the 100 - the eighth-fastest time ever for a woman.
Jones, who has broken her left foot twice, then ran the second leg and helped the U.S. team capture the gold in the 400-meter relay.
"After I won the worlds, people kept saying, 'You got all the pressure off you,'" said Jones, who grew up in Thousand Oaks, Calif., before her career at UNC. "Those people were wrong."I felt a lot more pressure on me because everyone was staring at me. I think I actually ran a lot faster just because everybody was running faster after that. I was really surprised that my body held up, and I just felt like I got better each time I was on the track."
So began the comparisons to Lewis, another athlete who in 1993 won world titles in three events: the 100, the long jump and the 400-meter relay.
Such a comparison has to do with the athletic supremacy of both, but also with the sense that Jones could be the representative for track and field that Lewis once was.
She has yet to really tap her potential; this is only her second full year of international competition.
When she came to him, Graham said, Jones had yet to be taught real technique. That was May 1997, after she had graduated from UNC.
"Marion is a very gifted athlete," Graham said. "She just plain and simple works hard. She never gives up."
That's why Griffith Joyner's record may be in peril. Jones said it has stood as long as it has because too many other female athletes have psyched themselves into believing it can't be beaten. She is not one of those people. "If I do everything that Trevor puts in front of me and things progress as they should, I have a really good chance of breaking that record or coming really close to it," Jones said. "It seems like since Flo Jo broke the record, all the women in the world have said, 'OK, that record is so out there that it's totally unreachable. I'm not going to even try.' There are great female athletes out there, but they have subconsciously put it out of their mind."Graham added: "That record is not unbeatable. Me and MJ don't feel that way. We're going to do it."
<b>Another Great Chapter</b></div>
At the 1998 U.S. Championships in June, Jones continued her incredible rise in the world of American track and field.
By winning the 100 meters, 200 meters and the long jump in New Orleans, Jones became the first American woman in 50 years to accomplish such a feat. Stella Walsh, who performed the amazing triple four times in her career, last did it in 1948.
Jones was clocked in a sparkling 10.72 seconds in the 100 despite a slow start, and she won the long jump with a wind-aided 23 feet, eight inches, despite jumping only twice. On the same exhausting day, Jones took her semifinal heat in the 200, then won the event 24 hours later.
"She's one of the greatest female athletes ever to walk on this planet," Graham said. "She is very competitive, eager to learn and to understand her sport more. She is going to be great in all three events in the next couple of years." Jones said she attempted the rare triple "to keep myself excited about the sport. I have to set goals. Not everyone can do it."
Jones' next opportunity for greatness will come at the 1998 Goodwill Games, scheduled for July 19-22 in New York.
John Smith, the sprint coach for UCLA who coached France's Marie-Jose Perec to gold in the women's 200 and 400 in the 1996 Olympics, watched Jones grow up as a track prodigy in Southern California. He, too, said she could be the one to break the record.
"She has star quality," Smith said. "She's very emotional. She makes the public experience what she does when she's on that track. I think she missed track for a long time. She's not tainted with the 'you-can't-do-this-or-that' syndrome. She's totally fresh."So fresh that she's still learning the basics from Graham. She ran last summer on pure speed and athleticism, and now she is learning the proper leg motions and body alignment while in flight. "Trevor breaks things down really well," Jones said. "He makes things very simple. He has this ability to relate to an athlete, and it kind of makes things exciting. I learned a lot of things that I didn't know before, mainly the technique things. I'm the so-called 'fastest woman in the world,' but every day I come out and learn something new."Last fall was the first time Jones underwent base training, the fall conditioning for track athletes. She had not experienced year-round training in the sport, which is why she can only continue to bloom.
"When I was in high school, it was basketball and track," Jones said. "And then in college, it was basketball and track.
"Now ... it's just track." <i>Jemele Hill is a sportswriter for the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer.</i> <hr>