Marion Jones ’97, former world champion track and field athlete, evoked both tears and laughter as she spoke on campus Wednesday evening as the kickoff event for this year’s annual Black Alumni Reunion.
For nearly an hour, Jones talked to the crowd of about 150 people about how she went from being the world’s top female athlete to being imprisoned for lying about her use of a performance-enhancing drug. She smiled and greeted individuals as she spoke, and then in open reflection of the people she said she had let down, her voice choked with emotion.
The people at Carolina, she said, had known right from wrong. She slipped away from those people and those values, she said, and she attributed both her endurance of prison and finding her direction again to relying on God. Her return to Chapel Hill Wednesday was the first time she had been back on campus in seven years.
Jones’ appearance in Alumni Hall in the George Watts Hill Alumni Center coincided with the release on Tuesday of her new book, On the Right Track: From Olympic Downfall to Finding Forgiveness and Strength to Overcome and Succeed.
In her remarks, she talked about her children and how she and her husband prepared them for her six months in prison, including how she made videotapes so her children would hear her voice at bedtime. She talked about being the only woman at the prison mail call to get dozens of letters at a time, and how many women never received letters – so she found ways for them to help her read and answer the letters she received, many of them from fans. Prison reform, she said, is now something much on her mind, and she encouraged her audience to consider it as well, that it is an issue that could affect them. Most prisoners are released at some point, and prisons don’t prepare inmates for that. When released, small life skills can elude them, and familiar and dangerous situations can recur.
Jones talked about how she managed to train in a five- by five-foot space, where she was isolated for 23 to 24 hours a day: the thin bed pad became her stationary running track, and she knew when she’d run for an hour by the rotation of the guards walking in view of the small window in her door. She left prison in perhaps the best physical shape of her life, she said.
Audience members in a question-and-answer session repeatedly thanked Jones for coming back to Carolina, applauded her courage and asked her about how she trained, how she manages as a mother and about whether she would ever coach. (No, she answered to that one – she lacks the patience to coach unless athletes are truly committed. She said she’s been involved in only one team in which every member was so committed, and that was the UNC’s women’s team that won the national championship in 1993.)
Later, Jones signed copies of her new book, including copies for UNC’s current basketball players. The line was long, but no one was in a hurry. Jones chatted with each person, smiling and looking very much happy to be back home at Carolina.
This event was presented as part of the Black Alumni Reunion’s 30th anniversary programming and was being organized by alumni volunteers active in the Black Alumni Reunion.
Publicity materials for Jones’ book note that “for more than a decade, Jones was hailed as the ‘the fastest woman on the planet.’ At the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, she became the first woman ever to win five medals at one Olympics. The Associated Press and ESPN named her Athlete of the Year. She seemed to have it all — fame, fortune, talent and international acclaim. Now she is a convicted felon.
“In 2003, she lied to federal agents about her use of a performance-enhancing drug and her knowledge of a check fraud scam,” the book materials continue. “In 2007, she admitted the truth. In a sad end to what seemed like a storybook career, she was stripped of her medals, and her track-and-field records were wiped from the books.
“She was incarcerated at Carswell federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas, a prison known for its violence and abuse,” according to material accompanying the book’s release.
“While there, she kept herself in shape and her sanity intact by running on a dirt track and a treadmill in the prison’s improvised weight room. But her imprisonment marked a new beginning. She is now using her story to change the lives of people the world over and inspire others who, like her, face obstacles that seem insurmountable.”
Details about the Black Alumni Reunion, including a schedule of events Oct. 27-30, is available online.