Leave Lolo Alone

The Associated Press

Newsflash: Lolo is over it. Over your naysaying (you, the viewing public, who probably couldn’t hurdle over the bathroom rug on the way to the toilet). Over the player hating of Olympic medalists Dawn Harper and Kellie Wells. Even over the criticism flung at her by some in the media – namely the New York Times’ resident asshole, Jeré Longman. In fact it was Longman’s scathing and now-infamous piece – in which he eviscerated Lolo, essentially accusing her of being a self-serving, underachieving, product-shilling fraud and attention whore – that had her so worked up on NBC’s Today last week. But trust: Lolo is back to her wisecracking ways (on Twitter and ESPN’s PTI), and couldn’t give two shits what Jeré or anyone who would attempt to tear her down thinks. She never has, and to me, that’s been the secret to her greatness.

Most of us have probably heard Lolo’s amazing story (and if you haven’t you really should), so I won’t belabor it here. But consider this: if while growing up you a) had a perpetually absent father who, when not incarcerated, taught you how to steal efficiently and run to stay warm during brutal winters; b) slept and showered in the bowels of a Salvation Army church, along with your mother and four siblings, during frequent bouts of homelessness; c) were a lightly-regarded high school runner in obscure Des Moines, Iowa; and d) overcame all that to become an NCAA champion at LSU, world indoor record-holder and two-time Olympian, how much would you care what others thought of you? Exactly. The fact that Lolo let on at all that she was bothered by the withering criticism as the 2012 Games approached should show you just how pronounced and patently unfair it all was. And that was before she even began the arduous process of qualifying in London.

Life has been no crystal stair for Lolo these past four years. Entering the ’08 Olympics, she was best in the world in the 100m hurdles, and the overwhelming favorite to capture gold in Beijing. After blistering the field in her preliminary heats, Lolo entered the finals a woman in full, and on the verge of immortality. But on that particular night, for whatever reason, she was tight as a drum as she awaited the gun, and was ultimately undone by the next-to-last hurdle. Subsequent back pain led to her being diagnosed with a tethered spine, which had contributed to diminished feeling in her feet and significantly compromised spatial awareness of the hurdles when she ran (likely contributing to that untimely clip in the race of her life). After surgery in 2011 to correct the problem, Lolo endured a grueling rehab to return triumphant, taking the US Open 50m hurdles this January. But in her signature event, she was no longer the world’s fastest, as Harper, Wells and 2008 silver medalist Sally Pearson of Australia routinely posted superior times at 100 meters.

The shifting tides were on full display at the Olympic Trials in June, with Lolo finishing 3rd in a crowded field to barely make the US squad. Still, she’d punched her ticket to Great Britain, but after the spinal surgery and assorted injuries this year, she faced long odds to obtain the elusive gold (or any medal). The finals of the 100m hurdles bore that out, as Lolo stormed out of the blocks in vintage form…except this time she wasn’t felled by an errant stride – simply too much Sally, Dawn and Kellie. It has been pointed out that Lolo finished “only 1/10th of a second out of 3rd place,” but that 1/10th may as well have been 10 minutes: she is still medal-less in the Olympics, and with the passage of time and the emergence of younger, faster hurdlers, likely to remain so.

To their credit, many in the media rushed to Lolo’s defense after her unfortunate finish. They applauded her for her uncommon grace and unfailing honesty in the face of disappointment in London (same as she’d shown in Beijing), and rightly pointed out that, medal or no, Lolo is perhaps the perfect role model for young girls in an era sometimes lacking for them. An athlete of poise and virtue, of intelligence and humility, of sportsmanship and profound strength. A clean competitor who embodies the essence of living by the golden rule, and who has steadfastly refused to be defined by the limitations of an unfortunate upbringing. A true Horatio Alger story.

Lolo proclaimed to the PTI Guys her intention to train and compete through the 2016 Rio Games, and as far-fetched as that may seem, who are we to doubt her? She has been counted out too many times to mention, and if her achievements were based solely on the faith others showed in her abilities, she never would have cleared the first hurdle. It is by following her internal compass that Lolo has scaled the heights she has, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if that lands her all the way in Brazil four years from now. If it does, I for one will be glued to the television.


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