Marion Jones could not bear to have her children visit in prison. The partings, she knew, would be too painful. But even on those nights when she missed her two young sons the most, the jailed track star knew there were some in that Texas women's prison who hurt more.
"All I had to do was look at my neighbor and see that she had been in 15 years," said Jones, who wept at that memory last night during a talk sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Africana Studies, "and know that her kids hadn't seen her in 15 years. Yet she was able to endure . . . endure for much longer than six months."
Once the world's top female track star, the winner of three gold and two bronze medals at the 2000 Summer Olympics, Jones fell hard from the sport's pedestal, ensnared in the same Balco steroids investigation that has implicated baseball's Barry Bonds.
In 2007 she pleaded guilty to lying to a federal grand jury. She has never tested positive for performance-enhancing substances, but Jones admitted she had used a Balco-produced substance, "the Clear," in 2000 and 2001.
Jones subsequently surrendered her Olympic medals and, beginning in January 2008, served six months in jail.
"I wish that at certain moments in my career that I really had taken a break and stepped back from the fame, the money, and the success," she said, "and thought about the decision I was making. One of my biggest regrets is that I did not do that at pivotal moments in my life and my career."
Jones, 33, and pregnant with her third child, was relaxed and upbeat throughout the session, part of the center's Race and Sports Lecture Series. As difficult as her prison experience was, she said, it also was, in an odd way, liberating.
"I went through so many emotions," she said. "But when I first went in there was this feeling of relief. People are surprised by that. But it was relief in the sense that I knew I'd done what I had to do. It was the start of a new beginning for me."
That new beginning, she told the audience at Huntsman Hall auditorium, included regrets and a desire to use her experience as a life lesson for others. However, she said it would not result in a book about her ordeal.
"People realize I messed up," she said. "I stood up to it. I took what came because of it and now I'm certainly not hiding in a case somewhere. I'm not a hermit. But I certainly don't plan to do a tell-all that's going to rip people up like you see some athletes do. That's not the message I want to share. That's not the message I want to be remembered by.
"My message is positive. Yes, mistakes were made. But how can those mistakes help you?"