By Shanelle Matthews
Monday, January 21, 2008
When Shanelle Matthews first met Marion Jones it was like encountering a goddess. Today, the sprinter's downfall feels like a personal loss and the writer is shocked by the severity of the six-month jail sentence for Jones, who is nursing a baby.
(WOMENSENEWS)--I could feel my heart beating in the back of my throat as I wiped my sweaty palms on my black Nike velour sweat suit. My ears rang and my legs trembled while I played hide-and-seek, quickly rushing behind the pillars of the second floor of the women's shoe department.
Near the stairwell I could see Tim Montgomery approaching and I knew she wouldn't be far behind him. I told myself, "She's just another athlete; she's no different from anybody else."
Moments later wearing an all-white track suit, there she stood. Five-time Olympic champion Marion Jones was standing 10 feet away from me and I was completely catatonic. My mouth dried up like the Aral Sea and I could barely move.
This was four years ago and I was working at Niketown in Beverly Hills, where many professional athletes frequently shop. I was just out of my freshman year in college.
Why was I so nervous? I had helped many pros before. Why was I feeling so nauseated and anxious now?
My Niketown co-workers looked as if they didn't recognize me, the always outgoing woman who was sent to talk to the athletes everybody else avoided. Even Detroit Pistons center Rasheed Wallace, notorious for toughness on and off the court, was no sweat for me.
I gathered myself. Taking a deep breath and a big swallow I straightened my clothes and slowly tip-toed away from my protective hiding spot.
"Hey, I'm Marion," she said.
I threw up.
Mortified, I ran to the bathroom and stared at myself in the mirror. I just heaved my vending machine lunch of Andy Caps Hot Fries and Peanut M-and-Ms at the feet of one of the most dominant female athletes in the world. I picked my dignity up off the floor and headed back out into a sea of humiliation.
Surprisingly, when she saw me she smiled and said, "Your co-worker told me you're a supporter, thanks."
I proceeded to help Jones and her partner pick out baby clothes for their new son. As self-conscious as I was, her calming spirit eased my anxiety and created a permanently fond memory.
Every kid has her hobby and mine was running. When I was 12 my dad thought he was punishing me when I got in trouble by making me run three or more miles on a track near our apartment. When he saw that it was hardly a punishment he encouraged me to pursue track and field, so I did.
In high school in Kentucky I ran sprints--100- and 200-meters--and competed in the long jump. I was one of the fastest young women in the state. In college I competed in the heptathalon, seven events that include the long jump, shot put, javelin, high jump, 200-meter sprint, 100-meter hurdles and the 800-meter run.
So I knew the dedication it had taken Jones to reach her level of success. She was the epitome of greatness in the wide world of male-dominated sports. She defied stereotypes, broke records and gave male athletes who thought they reigned supreme a run for their money.
Jones was a motivator for athletes everywhere, including me.
Last October, I watched Jones on TV admitting to using banned substances prior to the 2000 Summer Olympics. As she tried to speak through tears I got that same catatonic feeling as when I first saw her. Then I was paralyzed by admiration. This time I was paralyzed by something like despair.
"I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me," Jones pleaded outside the U.S. District Court.
I cried with her. "I forgive you Marion," I told the TV.
The whole thing left me loaded with mixed emotion. I was angry because in 2003, when Jones denied using banned substances, every track athlete I knew believed her. She'd let us down.
I also can't help see what is happening to her and baseball's Barry Bonds and think that the courts have been playing a game of hide-and-go-get-it with athletics for the last few years: Hide the fact that they know white athletes are using steroids and go get the black ones instead.
Bonds holds the all-time Major League Baseball record for home runs, walks and intentional walks. Other players have been using banned substances for years but somehow it was Bonds--just as he was surpassing the great white athletes--who took the fall and saw his career ruined.
It's also upsetting to think that Jones' two children will also serve this punishment as they lose the everyday nurturing contact with their mother at a crucial point in their development.
Average perjury sentences are around 17 months, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. But six months in prison still seems a long time for a woman who served black women as a role model. Given the high rates of incarceration for black mothers and African Americans overall, the last thing we African American women need is more examples of how to put on prison clothes.
It's sad now to see Jones' legacy go down the tubes. I was heartbroken when I came across her 2004 book "Life in the Fast Lane" in a 99-cent store.
Jones came forward and humbly admitted her wrongdoing with elegance and dignity. Unfortunately, the presiding judge still found it essential to say he would make an example out of her.
She is certainly an example for me: Strong and graceful even as she prepares to leave her family. I regret that she is guilty of perjury but given what she's done and all that she's going through, if she'd take my visit in jail, I'd go. In fact, I would sprint.
Shanelle Matthews is a Women's eNews intern and recent graduate from the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University.
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