“Don’t give up once you make a mistake. It's what you do afterwards that counts.”
That’s the message former Olympic track star Marion Jones had for UMass Boston students, faculty, and staff when she visited campus Friday afternoon to speak about “Responsibility, Redemption, and Resilience."
It’s a message Jones knows all too well.
For the last three years, the former five-medal Olympian and WNBA player has been traveling around the country telling her story through her “Take a Break” program in hopes that others will not make the same mistakes she did.
Jones, hailed as the “fastest woman on the planet” for more than a decade, became the first woman ever to win five medals at one Olympics at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. But in 2007, Jones was stripped of those medals after admitting to using performance-enhancing drugs. As a result of her confession, she served six months in federal prison for lying to federal investigators, 43 days of that sentence in solitary confinement.
Jones spoke of how she wished she would have taken a break and thought through the consequences of her actions when federal investigators showed her a bag containing a performance drug in 2003, asking if she had ever seen it. She recognized the substance as something her trainer gave her years before.
“In the span of 30 seconds, I made the choice to lie,” Jones said. “[I thought] if I admitted I had been given this, everything I had worked for ... dreamed of would be taken away from me.”
For the next four years, Jones said she felt like she was living a lie; she decided to come forward with the truth in 2007.
“It was a heavy, heavy burden to carry,” she said. “Having to constantly tell bigger lies. ... I can remember trying to teach my son [not to lie]. I thought, ‘I’m a hypocrite. ’ It was time to start new.”
Jones told students that her message applied to everyone, not just professional athletes: take a break and think before making choices.
“We all encounter choices in our life. If we just slow down and think about the consequences, the chances of making a good choice are high,” Jones said.
Jones was brought to campus through the UMass Uncommon Leadership speaker series. Led by UMass Amherst alumnus Glenn Mangurian (BS '70, MBA '73), the interview series examines leadership today through discussions with well-known leaders in organizations outside of traditional business. Chancellor J. Keith Motley and Vice Chancellor of Athletics, Recreation, Special Programs, and Projects Charlie Titus introduced Jones to the crowd.
A crowd of more than 200 — many of them student athletes — filled the Campus Center Ballroom for the event. Jones received a standing ovation at the end of her talk, and she began to cry as she spoke of her time in prison.
She told students that the six months she spent in a Fort Worth federal prison were the hardest of her life. But it also gave her time to reflect.
“I thought, ‘How in the world am I going to turn this wrong into a right?’ It forced me to prioritize my life,” she said.
Jones said that she was saddened by the stories of the women she met in prison— women who had been incarcerated for years who hadn’t seen or heard from their families since being locked up.
“Many had committed one illegal act and had a prison term of 15 years,” she said, crying. “I would say to myself, ‘Gosh I’m only here for six months. I will get to see my children. What the heck am I complaining about?’”
Jones also spoke about the dedication it takes to succeed at any dream. She told students how at age 9, she wrote on a chalkboard that she wanted to be an Olympian. Five years later, she was on her first Olympic team.
“You have to sacrifice everything for your training. You put everything else on the back-burner,” she said.
During a question and answer session, one student asked Jones whether she believes she still would have won her five Olympic medals without the performance enhancement drugs.
“I would have won,” Jones said. “I would have won the medals and broke the records. It’s a hard thing to stomach. ... Success would have been off the charts.”