OAK PARK — When a federal prison door to her cell slammed closed behind Marion Jones to start a six-month sentence in March 2008 for obstruction of justice, the former track and field star clearly realized the magnitude of her poor decisions.
Her punishment for lying to investigators about her knowledge of a scheme to cash in on millions of stolen or forged checks involving the father of her first child and denying use of performance-enhancing drugs was now a reality Ms. Jones learned to embrace.
“It was an eye-opening experience for me,” Ms. Jones told The OBSERVER during her visit to Sacramento High School this week. “But it was also a blessing because it forced me, literally, to slow down to see what was important in my life. It’s not the big house, fancy cars, and not your name in big lights. It’s really what you can do for other people,” she added.
Ms. Jones shared her soul as a special guest for IndiviZible’s Speakers Series. The event was held at Sac High for the students, organizers said.
Sacramento Mayor Johnson led the discussion, a conversation Ms. Jones was comfortable with and was allowed to speak freely, which she did while showing her signature smile.
Ms. Jones was the darling of track and field in the late 1990s to the mid-2000s. She won five medals in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, three gold and two bronze medals. But her use of performance-enhancing drugs and later jail time put a dark cloud over those feats and other performances.
During her six months of incarceration, she spent 49 days in solitary confinement for fighting another inmate, an incident she highlights in her memoir, “On The Right Track.” She also learned who were her actual friends during a time she called, “dark days” and “tough years.”
“I was able to see who really loved me and who are my true friends,” Ms. Jones said. “When you’re making a lot of money … everybody is your friend. When you have to send an email to 500 people who you think are friends, a day before you fly to New York to plead guilty, and then get 30 responses is humbling.”
Still faced with 400 hours of community service, the prison door eventually swung open for Ms. Jones. She was free to leave, but had to earn a living away from the track due to a lifetime ban from the sport. For a brief time, she played for the Tulsa Shock of the WNBA.
Ms. Jones now spends her valuable time with her husband and three kids in Austin, Texas. But leaving that prison cell, her home for about 180 days, Ms. Jones said, was a frightening experience.
“There was uncertainty when I left. I was scared and there was fear,” Ms. Jones explained to The OBSERVER. “But while I was there for the six months, or five months, I was able to reconnect with my faith. I realized that God had my back and He had been with me all along. God knew my story way before I was born; He knew I would make poor choices; He knew where I wound up at; and He knew at the end I would come out smiling. There was fear when I left prison, but I felt that things were going to be OK,” Ms. Jones stated.
Ms. Jones participated in her first 5k run the day before her 40th birthday on Oct. 12, yet she has “no desire,” to compete again, citing “I’m a sprinter, not a runner.” She also makes speaking engagements around the world, though she can’t shake the question of the “mistake.”
“It’s difficult for me to talk about it. I meet people from all over the world invite me to come talk about my mistake and it’s tough,” she told a packed audience at Sac High. “It’s a challenge. Yeah, they’ll get what they want. They’ll hear about the mistake. But they’ll get a lot of times what they don’t expect and that is that I have this resilient spirit.”
Larry D. Craig-Arriba attended the IndiviZible meeting to her Ms. Jones speak. Craig-Arriba was Ms. Jones’ personal body guard for nearly two years. He is now a life-coach counselor contracted with the Sacramento County Probation Department. Craig-Arriba was quite frank about Ms. Jones’ discussion.
“She was great,” he said, “… But as far as the investigation with the feds … they really had no type of evidence whatsoever against her. If she had not come forward, she never would had to do the time in my opinion. But other than that she was great (during the discussion). She’s just a great person.”
Before the talk between her and Mayor Johnson ended, Ms. Jones left a message for the young people in the audience, which was related to track and field, but she has always stood by in everything she was involved with.
Ms. Jones was 9 years old when she, her brother, mother, and stepfather attended a parade that celebrated the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Despite someone always telling her what she couldn’t do, that experience and watching the games on television is where she started thinking large and how big she wanted to be in life.
At that time, the athletes were crossing the finishing line first, “there was something special about their celebration and exuberance,” she said. Ms. Jones wanted that exact experience. It originated from there, winning gold medals, she said.
“I started to dream big. It just became the norm for me: people telling me you can’t do it. Well, that means nothing to me,” Ms. Jones said. “I spend a lot of my time traveling around the world talking about my experiences, but encouraging young people, ‘don’t limit your dreams.’ People are going to tell you, ‘No, no, that’s too big.’ It’s never too big. It’s never too big.”