In the swampy heat of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Lolo Jones peers at a line of approaching rain clouds. The rumble of thunder carries across the track at Louisiana State University, where Jones is training for her second run at an Olympic gold medal. Jones entered the 2008 Games in Beijing as the favorite to win the 100-meter hurdles, but in the final race she clipped a hurdle and ended up finishing seventh. A lifetime of training evaporated with one error.
When it comes to this summer’s Games in London, she’s leaving nothing to chance.
Jones is attended by 22 scientists and technicians, paid for by Red Bull, her sponsor. It is her seventh training session with the team, and today they’ve arrayed 40 motion-capture cameras along the track. She’s also being monitored by a system called Optojump, which measures the exact location and duration of Jones’ contact with the rubberized surface on every step and after every hurdle. And a high-speed Phantom Flex camera rigged next to the track can zoom alongside Jones and film her at 1,500 frames a second. The Red Bull team calibrates the equipment while Jones warms up.
As sports go, hurdling is incredibly technical. A runner’s raw speed has to be balanced against her form and technique as she clears the ten 33-inch hurdles. If you’re running too fast and not focusing on your form as you approach a hurdle, you can suddenly find yourself too close to the barrier as you take off, and you’ll hit it—as Jones did in 2008. Jones and her coach, Dennis Shaver, are seeking a deeper understanding of how she runs and how she might be able to adjust her technique to gain an advantage over her competition.