SOCHI, Russia — Lolo Jones is explaining how she became a bobsledder, her words becoming difficult to decipher as she tries to keep herself from crying.
So she wraps the tale up quickly, her eyes welling with tears as she shouts the four words: "They had my back."
Of all the words Jones said Monday, they might have been the most telling. It's no secret that she wasn't going to win popularity contests with her U.S. track and field teammates, especially after enjoying some spoils of fame despite failing to win a hurdles medal in either the Beijing Games of 2008 or the London Olympics four years later.
As a hurdler, she often felt unwanted. As a bobsledder, she's never alone; her teammates go just about anywhere she does. And despite some faux complaining from her about that, it's clear Jones is enjoying her trip to the Sochi Games more than anyone would have guessed when she showed up in Lake Placid, N.Y., for a tryout in the fall of 2012.
"From the first week they accepted me, they embraced me, they lifted me up, and I think it was what I needed to not only be a bobsled athlete but return back to track with my head held high and proud of the things I have achieved in that sport," Jones said. "So I really am grateful for them. I'm almost about to cry because they really gave me a fresh start, for sure."
Jones is one of three brakemen on the women's team, and U.S. officials plan to announce this week the driver-pusher pairings for the competition. Drama tends to find Jones at any Olympics, and this one is no exception, with some national team members questioning why she was selected over such experienced pushers as Emily Azevedo and Katie Eberling — both of whom openly aired their frustrations about not making the squad.
Once Jones was picked, conspiracy theories started coming out. NBC played a role, some said. Others felt the U.S. Olympic Committee hoped to capitalize on Jones' popularity. (American officials deny those suggestions.) Azevedo was quoted as saying Jones' Twitter followers — 377,293 as of Monday morning — helped make her more attractive to the selection committee.
Jones expected naysayers. She didn't know how big the storm would be after the pick was revealed.
"This is a sequel," Jones said, drawing a parallel between this and how some track teammates complained that her popularity soared without winning a medal in Beijing or London. "I definitely didn't feel it coming this time, but it's hard when you don't make a team. I think sometimes people forget that."
She seems perfectly content now. Jones and fellow first-time Olympic push athlete Lauryn Williams, another Summer Games veteran, will become the ninth and 10th Americans to compete in both the summer and winter Games.
"I've gotten to see her over the last six months, see how hard she's working toward this and she won't be outworked by anyone," Williams said. "She put in every effort and she's as deserving as everyone on this team. It was really tough to see the hurt on all sides, and without picking sides. What they did wasn't right, but at the same time, you know it was from a place of deep hurt."
Jones was depressed, underweight after not really eating for a month or so after London. Fellow bobsled pilot Jazmine Fenlator didn't recognize Jones, thinking she was a distance runner because of her leaner-than-usual build at the time.
"I mean, I have legit stats or whatever but sometimes you kind of forget those especially if you get thrown under the bus so many times in the media," Jones said. "I've even been thrown under the bus by my teammates in track and field. So to go into the training center and they barely knew me and they kind of just took me under their wing and were like, 'No, you're one of us.' "