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Chapter One: A Star Is Born
No one can predict athletic stardom from day one. First, the genes have to be there, the natural talent that will blossom as a young boy or girl grows and begins to play sports. Then there has to be opportunity -- to be encouraged to play and learn the skills, to find the competition, to acquire a good, understanding coach, and finally to acquire a love of the sporting life. However, that still doesn't ensure that an athlete will continue to progress and star at each new level as he or she becomes older.
Once again there has to be a support group -- family, coaches, friends -- who continue to encourage a young athlete in the right way, not forcing or pushing too hard, but letting the pieces fall into place naturally. Yet that still doesn't guarantee reaching the top. All things being equal, the final push has to come from the athlete. He or she has to develop character, an inner drive to excel, and a will to win that refuses to yield, refuses to be defeated. Only when all these factors are in place will a world-class athlete emerge.
When Marion Jones was born on October 12, 1975, in Los Angeles, the odds of her becoming a future star seemed long, indeed. Her mother, also named Marion, had spent her early years in Belize, which was then known as British Honduras. Her grandmother, Eva Hulse, died at the age of forty-three, with her grandfather, George, promising his wife that he would see their daughter, Marion, and her brother make it through high school.
There was no free education in Belize at the time, so George Hulse moved to Guatemala to try to earn a better living and send money back for the children. It was a tough life, with Marion Hulse being raised by distant relatives who became her guardians. She received her education, though, eventually spending two years at a secretarial school in London. Then she came to the United States in 1968 and spent two years in New York before moving to Los Angeles.
In New York, she had a very brief marriage to a man named Albert Kelly, some twenty years her senior. They had a son, also named Albert, then went their separate ways. After she moved to Los Angeles, Marion Kelly met a man named George Jones. They were soon married, but again there were problems. Jones would leave her, then return, doing this several times. By the time young Marion was born, the marriage was coming apart. Jones finally left for good and the couple divorced.
Fortunately, Marion's mother had a good job as a legal secretary, and the lawyers she worked for helped her sort things out during and after the divorce. She was determined to raise her children well and give them a good life. One of young Marion's earliest memories was sitting in the living room of her home in 1981, watching the wedding of Britain's Prince Charles to Princess Diana. She was not yet six years old when she turned to her mother and said:
"They have a red carpet to walk on, because they're special people. When will they roll out a red carpet for me?"
There wouldn't be a red carpet right away, but there was always sports. Young Marion grew quickly and began following her half brother, Albert, onto the streets and playgrounds, where he engaged in a myriad of sports and outdoor activities. Even when she was just six years old, Marion was already doing the things brother Albert was doing.
"She could dribble a basketball, run races, throw and hit a baseball, and compete with my friends and me," Albert said. "When it came to playing games, it was almost like having a brother."
By the time she was in kindergarten and first grade, she was the tallest girl in the class, already too fast and strong for the other kids to compete with her. Maybe that was step one to becoming a great athlete, but there was still so much ahead of her. Life changed somewhat in 1983 when her mother married a retired postal worker named Ira Tolar and the family moved to Palmdale, a small desert city fifty miles north of Los Angeles. Marion Tolar continued to work as a legal secretary while Ira stayed at home and took young Marion under his wing. He was as much of a father as she would ever have.
"Whenever he went somewhere, whether it was to the store or to the lodge to hang out with his buddies, I'd be right there," Marion said, in later years. "It was almost as if I was living in his back pocket."
During the next few years Marion grew taller and stronger, and began to excel even more as an athlete. Because she was already so good at everything, she often played with and against boys, rather than girls. She was so good in Little League that many parents watching in the stands, and seeing this young girl dominate the game, called out for the opposing pitcher to bean her with the baseball. It got so bad that her mother took her out of Little League and enrolled her in a gymnastics class instead. That was, in effect, the end of her organized baseball career.
Fortunately, it wasn't the same with other sports. She continued to play with her brother and his friends, though they were four and five years older than she was. "She was strong, almost as tall as most of my friends, and she never, ever quit," Albert said.
There was something else that Marion soon realized from playing sports all the time. Playing and excelling was one thing, but nothing was quite as satisfying as winning. She loved being on the winning team, or crossing the finish line first in a race, or being honored with a medal or ribbon for her athletic achievements. The desire, or need, to win and finish first made her work even harder. She practiced the basic skills of basketball and gymnastics for hours on end. Sometimes her mother or stepfather would have go out to find her and order her inside. She was not living the life of a typical little girl.
"I had no use for dolls or any girl things," Marion would say. "I didn't even have any girlfriends."
Life for Marion and her family took a cruel turn just a few short years later. In 1987, Ira Tolar suffered a stroke and died. His loss would be felt by the entire family and especially by Marion, since he was the only father figure she had ever known. As her half brother Albert said, "Ira was always there for my sister. He talked to her, answered her questions, helped her with her homework, took her to tee-ball games. Then he was gone."
For Marion, it was a great loss. Ira Tolar had filled a void in her life and undoubtedly would have continued to do so had he lived. Yet like so many youngsters who don't live with both parents, Marion had a yearning that would never really go away. As she would say years later, "I loved Ira to death, but he was not my real dad."
At the time of Ira Tolar's death, Marion's half brother Albert was in Belize with an uncle, so Marion and her mother were left alone. Marion's nickname on the street was "Hard Nails," for her toughness and spunk. Her mother knew she would have a tough job ahead of her because she already felt her daughter was destined for something special.
She knew that if she raised her own daughter the way she had been raised, she would risk losing her.
"She was the type of child who would say, 'If I don't get this or that, I'm going to jump off this ledge,'" Marion Tolar said. "If I said, 'Go ahead, jump,' she would have. I knew that she would defy me, test me, and there were many rebellions. But I decided that she was special, that I had to find a way to nurture these qualities, not beat them out of her."
After that, Marion Tolar began to plan the family's life to ensure her daughter's success and happiness. It wasn't always easy, but she was right about one thing. Marion Jones was indeed special, and she would soon begin showing it to all who watched her perform.
Copyright © 2000 by Bill Gutman