SOCHI — Lolo Jones wants the world to know that her teammates have her back, and she's grateful. They took her under their wing, she said, and told her she was one of them. Jones choked up in the telling, tears welling in her big green eyes.
Team-as-family was the theme of the day at the U.S. women's Olympic bobsled team's news conference Monday morning. It was held in a hall named for Leo Tolstoy, who famously wrote that happy families are all alike, while every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Olympic hopefuls Emily Azevedo and Katie Eberling were unhappy when they failed to make the team. They expressed bitterness that Jones, the beautiful Olympic hurdler crossing over from Summer Games to Winter, was chosen over them. "I should have been working harder on gaining Twitter followers than gaining muscle mass," Azevedo told USA TODAY Sports.
"I honestly wish it was Twitter followers that would have got me the spot, because that would mean I was guaranteed for real," Jones said with a laugh, speaking to reporters after the formal news conference.
She sat on the far edge of the podium, legs dangling, as she dutifully answered every question for a half hour until officials told her it was past time for the men's team to hold its news conference. She talks fast, makes eye contact with every questioner and tailors her responses based on the audience ("Hello, Iowa!" she chirped to a TV station from Des Moines).
Jones suggested some people hate her because she's popular.
"I don't know, just gotten to the point for some reason being popular – at the same token, you're taught when you do your media stuff to be charming and to answer the questions and be genuine," she said. "I don't know how that comes across as being negative (or) how people will try to use that against you. Like, 'She has too many Twitter followers, so now we hate her.' But wait, when I had a thousand and you wanted me to be outspoken and show you who I am; I don't know."
Jones has more than 377,000 followers and tweets avidly in Sochi, though the nine-hour difference from the Eastern time zone means she is selective on when she sends them. "A lot of times you want to tweet something," she said, "and America is not even up yet."
The controversy over her selection, Jones said, has galvanized her and five teammates on the Olympic team.
"I think it made our team closer," Jones said. "The girls that made the team actually, at first we were kind of like silent, hoping the procedures would stand for itself. And then we just got tired of the rumors. … Through the controversy it actually brought us together more."
And here Jones singled out Elana Meyers and Aja Evans as teammates who went public in her defense. "I never asked them to do anything," Jones said, "but they were kind of just like, enough is enough."
The kerfuffle carries echoes of the London Games, where Jones was harshly criticized in a New York Times story that said her stardom was fueled more by marketing than performance.
"I guess I didn't expect it" this time, Jones said. "I was like, wow, this is a sequel. I just wasn't prepared for it."
Jones suggested that Azevedo and Eberling spoke out of anger.
"You have to understand; it's hard when you don't make a team," Jones said. "I think sometimes people forget that. I didn't make the team last year, and I was very hurt. But I just went out the next day and tried to be the best alternate I could. Everyone has their different stages of grief. You can get angry, you can get sad. I just have to respect what they're going through and just look at it from their point of view. That's all I try to do."
The veteran push athletes who didn't make the team said they weren't given the same opportunities to succeed as Jones. Meyers is considered a gold medal contender in Sochi, but neither Azevedo nor Eberling were given a chance to ride in her sled this World Cup season. Without that opportunity, there wasn't a level playing field, they said.
Jones said she likes the camaraderie of a team sport compared to the "I, I, I," of hurdling.
"I remember watching Gabby Douglas and the whole gymnastics team walking in the cafeteria" in London, Jones said. "I feel like that's how we are now. We're literally always walking into the cafeteria six of us deep, so it's pretty funny."
In Sochi, she tweets about waiting for the McDonald's in the athletes' village to open, how much money she spent at the salon (2,000 rubles) and the view from her balcony: "Summer Olympians be jealous."
She even tweeted about how close she and her family of teammates really are: "Women's Bobsled Team is taking the buddy system in Russia a bit too extreme ... back off homie, I gotta go to the bathroom."
As for getting choked up when speaking of those teammates, Jones said she just couldn't help herself.
"I wasn't trying to tear up," she said. "My teammates have done so much to help me out during this bobsled journey that it is hard not to get emotional just talking about them."