08/24/08 — Local former Olympian talks about opportunity

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Local former Olympian talks about opportunity

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on August 24, 2008 12:19 PM

For former three-time Olympian Leora "Sam" Jones, watching the 2008 Beijing Summer Games has been a treat.

From swimmer Michael Phelps' multiple golds in the pool, to sprinter Usain Bolt's domination on the track, watching the spectacle -- as she does every four years -- has brought back the memories of her own days representing Team USA, and the opportunities she had to see Carl Lewis, Florence "FloJo" Griffith Joyner and the original Dream Team master their respective sports.

A standout member of the national women's team handball team from 1984 to 1992, Ms. Jones never medaled, but the memories of those years have stuck with her.

Especially, she said, the experiences of living in the Olympic Village, not only with some of America's best athletes -- including her favorite Olympian, FloJo -- but also others from all over the world.

"I'm a three-time Olympian. The Olympics are part of my life. They're part of my past. And it's an unbelievable experience. All those cultures, those top-notch athletes ... it lets you know how small the United States is -- that there's more out there than just the United States of America," she said. "And even though you're there to win and you need to be 100 percent focused, after your competition you want to see and do everything, because even though it's about winning, it's also about meeting people."

Originally a star shooting guard for East Carolina University after graduating from Southern Wayne, Mrs. Jones' quest for Olympic gold began in 1982 as a fifth-year senior when she was asked to try out for the national handball team. She had previously, in 1980, tried out for the national women's basketball team before being cut in the semifinal round of eliminations.

And so even though she didn't know the game yet, she knew team handball would be her ticket to the Olympics.

"We were pulled from all different sports," she said. "To me, it's the easiest way to make the Olympics because we had open tryouts. We recruit right off the street."

Played indoors on a 20-by-40-meter court, with a 32-panel leather ball and seven players on a side -- six on the court, one in the goal -- team handball is a physical sport that combines elements of basketball, soccer and hockey.

"I had never played before," she said. "But I pick up on any sport with a ball really well, so it came pretty easy. I just started playing and training from that point."

So for the next decade, she devoted herself to the sport, alternating between living and training her teammates at the Team USA training facilities and playing professionally for top teams in Austria and Germany. By 1987 she was considered one of the top five players in the world, according to Olympian magazine. She also helped coach the national team from 1993 until 1995.

"I had a good career," she said. "I did my share of scoring."

Those efforts, though, didn't lead to a medal, even after the team finished fourth in its first crack at Olympic handball in 1984 in Los Angeles. Her next two Games ended in seventh in 1988 in Seoul, South Korea, and sixth in 1992 in Barcelona, Spain.

The team also finished 8th in 1996 in Atlanta but only after receiving a qualifying exemption as the host country.

It has not qualified since, and Mrs. Jones, now 48, no longer plays or coaches.

But that hasn't diminished her enjoyment of this year's Games, though she does wish the lesser-known sports would receive more prime-time attention.

"There is so much going on. There are so many other sports," she said. "Of course I'm biased because I played one of those unknown sports."

Still, she continued, "I watch everything I can. I'm a UPS driver now, so I have to TiVo it, but I will follow it till the day I die."

And when she saw Phelps' and Bolt's performances, it only made her wish all the harder that she had been there.

"I wish I could have been in Beijing. And I love a pool right now, so I was taking notes," she said, laughing. "(Phelps' accomplishment) was just as big as everybody's making it out to be. He stands alone, but it also was a good example of a team. It'll be a minute before anybody does it again."

The same with Bolt, whom she refused to criticize for his showmanship before, during and after his record-setting 100-meter dash.

"Me, I would have run as hard as I could. But I don't blame him at all. Not at all. He trained hard and everyone expresses their happiness in a different way. That boy is 22 years old. He's the next generation," she said. "When I played basketball at ECU, I showboated. When I was playing in the Olympics, I showboated.

"It's called confidence. You're psyching yourself up. You'd just better produce."

Because, after all, that's why the athletes are there -- to compete and to win.

"You are there to represent your country. You are there to represent the United States, and you are there to win, point blank," she said.

And despite China's political reputation, that single-minded focus and determination is one reason she's not surprised more athletes aren't using their platform to speak out against the host country.

"The Olympic Committee knew what they were doing when they gave the Olympics to China. They knew it was going to be controversial," she said, acknowledging that using the Games to force reforms in Chinese society hasn't worked as planned.

"But who am I say," she said. "Speaking out's one thing, but we've trained hard and we just want to compete.

"And today especially, unless you're going to stand behind what you do, if you do well and you go out there and protest something, then there goes your sponsorship and all that money.

"Besides, nobody's going to tell China what to do."