Sprinter McKenzie Long advances to final of 200 meters at Olympic trials with mom in her heart

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — There are moments when sprinter McKenzie Long wants to reach for the phone, call her mom and relay some good news that just happened.

Like winning three titles at NCAA championships for Mississippi earlier this month. Or signing that pro deal with Adidas soon after. Or now that she’s on the doorstep of earning a spot at the Paris Games, a dream they dreamed together.

These are some of the times she misses her mom the most. Tara Jones, 45, died in her sleep of a heart attack earlier this year, Long explained.

“It’s hard because I’m just like, ‘Mom, what do you think of this?’… Because my mom, she wanted to be involved — she wanted to deal with all the hands-on stuff,” said Long, who won her 200-meter semifinal heat at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials Friday night to earn a spot into the finals. “I don’t want to stop including her in this track world. I want to include her in every way possible. And that’s what keeps me going, keeps me motivated.”

One of the last conversations they had was about her possibly making the team to represent the red, white and blue. That would be a monumental — and emotional — moment, she said. That’s why missing out on a spot in the 100 meters earlier in the trials hurt so much.

Long told the story about how before the 100 she received a gift from an official. They handed her an empowerment bracelet and said they were thinking of her.

“I was almost in tears,” Long said. “My coach came back and was like, ‘Are you OK? You look like you’re about to cry.’ … I felt like I could’ve done a lot better. I was just beating myself up.”

She’s turned the page, though, focusing on the 200. It’s a deep field led by Sha’Carri Richardson, the reigning 100-meter world champion, and Gabby Thomas, the bronze medalist in the 200 at the Tokyo Games in 2021.

Like Long, both Richardson and Thomas won their heats Friday. Thomas said Long’s story inspires her.

“You see her doing incredible things on the track despite what she’s going through in her personal life,” said Thomas, who turned in a world-leading time of 21.78 seconds. “It just kind of fuels me to go into my races and do well.”

Long’s mom always instilled in her a sense of confidence and belief.

“I lean on myself a lot,” Long said. “She was always like, ‘You need to get your voice, learn how to speak up for yourself.'”

At nationals earlier this month, Long captured titles in the 100 and 200, along with being part of the winning 4×100 relay. Mom was with her every stride, she said — and looking out for her. Long went to set up her starting blocks for the 100 and it was already positioned at the proper settings.

That’s never happened for Long before.

“I was shook,” Long told media at the NCAA championships. “I was like, ‘Mom, this is instantly you.’ … I immediately thought of her. I will honestly, kid you not, remember that race for the rest of my life. That was her.”

Her races used to make her mom so nervous. That’s why her mom would sometimes walk outside when she competed. Long said the last race her mom attended was the outdoor SEC meet last year when she won the 200.

“Now I know she’s running with me and she can actually watch me run,” Long said. “I know that makes her proud. She can stop being nervous now. I’m doing this for her.”


AP Summer Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2024-paris-olympic-games

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