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Star power rewriting American track and field

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For more on college sports, follow Pete DiPrimio via Twitter at www.twitter.com/pdiprimio

New league includes Lolo Jones, Andy Bayer

Sunday, May 4, 2014 - 12:01 am

BLOOMINGTON -- We're talking food with Lolo Jones. Yes, THAT Lolo Jones, the track world champion, bobsled Olympian and ratings magnet who is seeking, along with some other high-profile racing superstars, to rewrite what we know about American track and field.

First, though, the food.

“My brother used to cook for me,” she says, “but now I cook all my food. I enjoy it. I think a lot of track athletes do. When I'm home, I cook.”

Athletes are what they eat, to a big extent, and few have had to eat with as much purpose as Jones in the two-year whirlwind that saw her compete in the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London and the recently completed 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

As a hurdler, Jones needs power, agility and speed without bulk. As a bobsledder, she needs even more power and the muscle mass to generate it. She gained nearly 30 pounds for the Winter Olympics, then lost it in about two months.

This can lead to performance-enhancing temptation. Drugs are everywhere in sports, and outside of Lance Armstrong, pro cyclists and whatever A-Rod is up to these days, track athletes get the biggest rap about it because so many have tested positive over the years.

Jones has avoided that notoriety, in part, she says, by relying on Twinlab products (it's one of her sponsors) that, she says, are “independently tested and clean” that have “nothing that will harm Olympic athletes.”

“A lot of athletes are worried about cross contamination with their supplements.”

Jones says she doesn't have a nutritionist (“I have everything else, but that -- a massage therapist, a chiropractor, and those things add up.”).

Even a pro athlete who is reportedly worth a couple of million dollars has limits – and modest tastes.

“Track athletes eat basic stuff,” she says. “In season it's chicken, fish, every now and then steak. It's very simple.”

Simplicity has Jones 100-meter hurdle ready, and she proved it in this weekend's inaugural American Track League meet at Indiana University's Robert C. Haugh Track Complex. Her winning time of 12.89 seconds wasn't close to her personal best (12.43) or the track record (12.74), but that wasn't the point.

Launching a new track series was.

“I'm thrilled about it,” Jones says.

First though, flashback 24 hours earlier, at a downtown Bloomington hotel, when she was a woman on the go, and happy she wasn't in Europe.

“I was more excited to come here rather than put another stamp on my passport,” she says, flashing a Hollywood smile.

Jones rates among track's biggest stars, acclaimed for her good looks, criticized for the attention that creates, which adds complexity and intrigue, which can fuel fame, sap performance. She has battled the image of glamour over substance, of controversy (including her self-professed virginity) over consistency, although with a resume that includes three collegiate NCAA hurdle titles at LSU, two world hurdle championships as a professional, plus one world bobsled gold medal (she's one of the few athletes to compete in Olympic summer and winter games), it's a battle she has mostly won.

Still, there is off-track drama. For instance, she recently twitter jabbed singer Rihanna -- “It's amazing that Drake is hosting the @Espys but it's gonna be tough for him to hand out all those awards to Rihanna's ex boyfriends.” -- to stir up Rihanna fans.

While the image of her near miss gold medal at the 2008 Olympics remains etched in sports lore (she was leading until stumbling over the ninth of 10 hurdles), she has moved beyond that. Her fourth place finish in the 100 hurdles at the 2012 London Olympics was disappointing, even though her 12.43-second time was the fastest non-medaling time in Olympic history.

“I walked away knowing I was competing, not only with the best in the world, but the best who have ever run the hurdles,” she says. “It's such a thrilling event. Anything can happen.”

Jones has pushed a pace few could sustain, from the Lolo Jones Foundation with its Hurdles of Hope mantra that focuses on single mothers, families of incarcerated loved ones (her father was in and out of prison while she was growing up) and poverty stricken communities and youth, to the drain of switching from track to bobsledding.

“The last two years were really tough. I had a total of two days off, and on those days I went to speak to kids.

“Now I'm focused on track. It's hard to transition back and forth. The demands of each sport are so different. Bobsled required me to gain weight. Track required me on a slimmer side. Bobsledding had me work with teammates. Track is more individualized.

"That whole balance -- sometimes it complemented me, a yin and yang experience, other times I felt like a divorce. It was like, get me out of this situation.”

She embraced the American Track League situation. Founded by her agent, Paul Doyle, it took 15 years to become reality. The idea is to give U.S. athletes an option besides Europe's high-profile Diamond League, drawing fans while cutting back on athlete's travel time and expense.

Besides Jones, the league will include 2012 Olympic decathlon gold medalist Ashton Eaton, 400 gold medalist Sanya Richards-Ross, two-time 400-meter relay gold medalist Dee Dee Trotter, 400 meter hurdle silver medalist Lashinda Demus and NCAA champ (and former Indiana University and Leo standout) Andy Bayer.

Friday's debut event -- there will be eight this year -- included a concert, a dance team, and a chance for fans to run a 40-yard dash against the pros, and win a berth in the 100-meter dash.

“The No. 1 question track athletes get asked is, what's your time in the 40?” Jones says. “They all want to compare us to the NFL Combine.”

And so Kris Jenkins, a former Hanover College sprinter who now works in Indianapolis, drove to Bloomington to take his 40-yard dash shot. His 4.42-second time got him into the 100-meter finals against the pros. His 11.91 time was last, well behind winner Mark Jelks (10.31).

For the record, the pros also had to run the 40. The Bahamas' Derrick Atkins won in a mind-boggling 3.28.

All this was part of Doyle's well-thought-out process to start small and build to something special.

“We're tired of people asking, when can I see you run?” Jones says. “Before, you'd have to say, every four years in the Olympics. Having regular meets on a regular basis in this country is huge. They ensure that our youth have a chance to compete, ensures the vets have a chance to compete at home. It will help us continue to be the best track country in the world.”