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February 18, 2014

Lauryn, Lolo set to slide into history

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — The conversation happened in an airport as Lauryn Williams and Lolo Jones were making their way to Rome for a track meet. Williams asked why no one recruited her to try bobsledding. Jones replied that she was perfect for the sport.

That story ends there.

This story starts there.

Barely eight months after that chat, which as both women recall lasted only a few minutes, they will be making Olympic history. When the women’s bobsled competition at the Sochi Games starts tonight, Williams will be with Elana Meyers in USA-1, Jones with Jazmine Fenlator in USA-3, and they will take to the ice as the ninth and 10th Americans to compete in both the Summer and Winter Games.

“I feel that new, refreshed feeling,” Williams said. “It’s the same thing I felt in 2004 when I went to my first Olympics. I didn’t plan on going to the Olympics that year. I was just there and it was a great opportunity and a good experience. And here I just wanted to come in and talk to all the people and hear everyone’s story and understand how bobsled works.”

Truth be told, Williams’ understanding of how bobsled works is still rudimentary at best. But the native of Rochester, Pa., still earned a spot in the top American sled for the Sochi Games. Her combination of strength and explosive speed — honed by years in track, three Olympics, a silver medal in Athens and a gold medal as part of a winning relay in London — is exactly what the United States wants in push athletes.

Jones also has been a quick study and is now a three-time Olympian, after competing in hurdles in Beijing and London, missing medals by essentially a few inches both times.

That void, along with the desire to escape all the pressure she was facing as a star in track, brought her to the winter world.

“I’ve worked so hard for this dream,” said Jones, of Des Moines. “I’m satisfied with my efforts. I’m satisfied with my fight. But when people start knocking me, that’s the most hurtful thing. I wish they could just jump inside of me and feel what I’ve gone through during my Olympic journey.”

Their most recent Olympic journeys have had some naysayers. There were questions whether Jones making the team was a publicity stunt. Others asked how serious a sport it can be if Williams can show up out of the blue and find her way not just onto the team, but into USA-1.

The U.S. insists the stories are legitimate.

“They’ve come from an individual sport,” U.S. coach Todd Hays said. “But they both have been unbelievable teammates.”

Williams was going into the business world and ready to settle down before that talk with Jones. She announced her track retirement just a couple of weeks after that conversation during the layover on the way to Rome, never letting on then that another Olympic attempt may be in her future. Soon, she was consumed by the chance. And even during her 30th birthday celebration, a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Kenya and Tanzania, bobsled was on her mind.

“It was amazing. Saw ostriches mating, lions hunting, you name it, elephants peeing,” Williams said, giggling. “And then it was back to bobsled.”

One of Williams’ earliest recollections from her time at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y. last fall was having someone she described as “a skinny white girl who did skeleton” recognize her and tell her that she was an idol.

The girl was Veronica Day, who’s working her way up the skeleton ladder.

“When Lauryn Williams won her silver medal in 2004, I was just starting high school and had just joined the track team,” Day said. “Like most teenagers, as a 13- or 14-year-old girl, I was extremely impressionable and Lauryn was who I wanted to be like at track practice.”

Oddly, that still rings true.

Williams’ personality is electric, and from her days as a track star at Miami until now, people have said that’s her biggest gift.

“She showed up at our team camp and it was like she had been there her whole life,” said former U.S. bobsledder Bree Schaaf, who drove Williams down the Lake Placid track for the first time this fall and now is part of NBC’s Olympic coverage. “And one day I told her, ‘Lauryn, you are awesome at life.’ She just has this glow. You see that smile and the sun shines.”

The perception about Jones is that she’s difficult to deal with, egocentric at times, almost aloof at others. Her foibles involving social media, combined with the fact that many track teammates saw fit to criticize her level of celebrity, have taken a toll on her.

But around the bobsled team, there’s been a nary a complaint about her commitment.

“Right now people think I’m just a bobsledder, that I’ve given up on my track career and that I’m strictly a bobsledder,” Jones said. “That kind of irritates me. If they knew anything about me, they’d know that I’m not a quitter. Just because I’ve gone to the games twice, so close to a medal both times, that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop running. If anything, that’s why I’m a bobsledder.”

Williams and Jones have different reasons for being here, yes.

Same goals, though.

“I think we just want to be the best we can for our team and for our country,” Williams said. “If that happens, good things will happen.”

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