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JONES TAKES GIANT FIRST STEP IN DRIVE FOR FIVE

About halfway through the race, as her stride began to lengthen and her hapless rivals began to fall away from her, you knew. After all the months of hype, after all the magazine covers and the long build-up, you realized what all the fuss and clamor had been about.

You knew the possibility was real. Once you were able to see her up close and contemplate her sheer speed, her remarkable athletic talent, you finally understood why Marion Jones had pronounced her intention to win five golds medals in a single Olympic Games.

Because she can.

By dusting off the field in the women's 100 meters here Saturday night, Jones proved she is the genuine article, fully capable of achieving her ambitious goal. In her first Olympic final, in the biggest race of her life, she ran her best time of the season, a 10.75, crossing the finish line .37 seconds ahead of the nearest competitor.

Winning an Olympic 100 meters by more than a third of a second is a blowout of epic proportions. She was Tiger Woods in the U.S. Open, Secretariat in the Belmont, Michael Johnson in the 200 in Atlanta, so far ahead at the finish line it defies belief.

When she was 8 years old, she wrote on a blackboard at school, "I'm going to be an Olympic champion." Earlier this year, she said she wanted to become the first woman to win five track and field gold medals at the Olympics. She has the first one in the books, and the drama intensifies. The longer she keeps the drive for five alive, the better this Olympics will be.

"It's very difficult to put in words," Jones said at a jam-packed news conference more than an hour after her victory. "I've spent 19 years believing and dreaming about this. It all comes down to one race.

"Last night, I had a very difficult time sleeping. I slept very little. C.J. (Hunter, her husband) said, 'Close your eyes.' I said, 'They are closed, I'm just not going to sleep.' I kept going over the race in my mind, how I was going to execute it. You guys here have no idea how much pressure there is out there, and the moths didn't help."

There is incredible pressure before a 100-meter final at the Olympics. All those months and years of training come down to one excruciating, 11-second sliver of time. All that building and then it's over.

So much can go wrong in so short a race.

Twice the women's 100 was disrupted by false starts. At one point, it was delayed when the Australian crowd began chanting for an Aussie pole vaulter. Huge moths flew about the Olympic Stadium. Still, Jones' concentration never wavered. She looked straight down the track, exhaled, waited for the starter's gun, and then she was gone, her silver shoes flashing in the night.

When Jones crossed the line, she let out a cry of delight and raised her arms in triumph. Seconds later, she saw her family members sitting in the lower stands and bent over, sobbing. Then she went over to embrace her mother, a native of Belize. She came away with two flags, one of Belize and one of the United States.

She made a slow, joyous victory lap, waving the flags and smiling like a little girl. Later, when she showed up for the news conference, she had the same expression of innocent joy on her face. She was once again the girl who had written her Olympic plans on the blackboard years before.

"It was an incredible experience, everything I've dreamed of and more," Jones said. "Sitting in my apartment, watching the Olympics and seeing everyone win gold, I vowed that when I crossed the line, I'd keep my cool. But when I crossed, that went out the window.

"I felt great joy when I finished. All the hard days, the cold, miserable days were all for something. Then I looked over and saw my family and pretty much lost it. They're the ones who always believed in me and supported me. To have them sitting there and supporting me in Sydney, I couldn't ask for more."

Nothing but four more gold medals, that is. It will not be easy. Prospects are not looking very rosy for the two relays. Inger Miller is hurting. The top American 400-meter runners are not at top form. Jones is an acknowledged underdog in the long jump.

Still, watching her pull away in the 100-meter dash, you realized that anything is possible with this 24-year-old woman. It's hard to imagine her being challenged in the 200 meters. If she runs this way in the 200, she might win by the sort of margin Michael Johnson did at that distance four years ago. She is capable of making up a very large deficit, if necessary, in the anchor leg of the 4x100 relay.

At least the first race, the toughest race, is out of the way. After winning the 100 meters in the 1984 Games, Carl Lewis said it relieved a lot of the pressure and made it easier for him to win the rest of his gold medals.

"I don't see it that way at all," Jones said. "I don't see this as a relief. I'm here having a ball. This isn't a stressful time. It's a happy time in my life. I'm hoping to enjoy it four more times."

She seems happy enough. She seems to revel in the competition and the attention that comes with it. Jones certainly understands the media and knows what they're after. "I have a goal. All of us know it," she said, making it sound as if she and the world sporting press were all in this together.

It's hard not to root for her, just a little bit. You have to admire a woman with the guts to tack her goals onto the wall for everyone to see, then go out to try to achieve them. The best thing in the Games from here on in is watching Marion run.

"I wish her the best," said Maurice Greene, who won the men's 100 meters and the right to celebrate in Jones' shadow. "I wouldn't do it. I remember how tired I was last year running all the rounds of the 100 and 200 at the worlds.

"She's a phenomenal athlete, and it will take a phenomenal athlete to do it."

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