BEIJING — Every morning, when the kids showed up for the church summer camp at the Salvation Army building in Des Moines, Iowa, Lolo Jones, her sister and brothers were already there.

Day after day, Jones bounced around the gymnasium as others walked in.

She owned boundless energy, an infectious smile, but also a guarded secret. The woman picked by some to win the gold medal in the 100-meter women's hurdles at the 2008 Summer Olympics lived in the basement.

"I remember we had to wake up earlier than when the kids started arriving, so they wouldn't tease us," she said. "Me and my brothers would get up and we'd be in the gym before the other kids got there.

"So it kind of looked like our parents were the first to drop us off at the camp."

These Olympics are positioned to be a global introduction for Jones, a 26-year-old graduate of Des Moines Roosevelt High School.

Oakley launched a campaign for its "Enduring" sunglasses line that features Jones, the Olympic Trials winner and reigning world champ in the 60-meter indoor hurdles.

The United States Olympic Committee will bring three women's track stars to a Thursday press conference with international media: Olympic gold medalist Sanya Richards, Olympic silver medalist and world champion Allyson Felix — and Jones.

A life that included homelessness now resonates with world-stage possibility.

"This is not like a Dream Team basketball person that has a multi-million dollar contract," said Kim Carson, another Roosevelt track star who helped Jones since junior high on and off the track and traveled to Beijing. "This is a kid who had nothing."

Growing up, Jones attended eight different schools in eight years as her single mother bounced between Texas and Iowa, often holding down two jobs to support her children. Jones' father, who spent time in the Air Force and jail, "wasn't really in the picture much," she said.

While in third grade, Jones estimated, the family ended up in the basement of the church.

All the moving and all the change eventually became too much for Jones, who decided against a move to Forest City, telling her mother, " 'Mom, I can't go to a city that doesn't have a track. I'm trying to pursue my dream.' "

The decision began a stretch where Jones lived with three families, including the family of Randy Essex, a former assistant managing editor of The Des Moines Register who now works at the Detroit Free Press.

Essex noticed at youth track events his son participated in that no one seemed to be in the stands cheering Jones, a blossoming star.

"It was a really family-oriented club," Essex said. "I asked (the club organizer) after practice why there were no parents or adults around Lolo."

That conversation eventually led to Jones moving in with Essex and his family for about 16 months, beginning in August 1998.

"When she moved in with us, it was obviously a difficult situation for her," Essex said. "We were almost strangers."

Essex watched, impressed, as Jones quietly focused on decision after decision. She worked at track. She worked at track. She worked at her job at the Iowa Bagel Bakery near 42nd Street and University in Des Moines.

"Just a hard-working, dependable kid," he said.

Jones also lived with Kim Walker, a Des Moines attorney, and his wife, Jean.

Walker watched proudly as Jones returned to Roosevelt recently to hand over new track shoes to her former high school and a $12,000 check to Renee Trout, a flood victim and single mother from Cedar Rapids.

"That's as good a role model as we can ask for, don't you think?" Walker said.

When high school ended, Jones landed a spot on the track team at Louisiana State University — a national powerhouse. At LSU, Jones understood the uniqueness of her situation for the first time.

Other LSU students packed up belongings to go home for the holidays.

"I was like, 'Wait, I don't have a bedroom to go (to) back home,' " Jones said.

LSU coach Dennis Shaver knew the family faced financial challenges, but "she never complained."

When Jones graduated, she worked minimum-wage jobs to keep chasing an Olympic track dream — an experience she said was more difficult than being temporarily homeless.

"It was more hard for me to swallow my pride and take out garbage at a gym when I had an economics degree and Spanish minor," she said.

"I had people come up to me like, 'Didn't you graduate? What are you doing working at this gym?' I was like, 'I'm trying to do this track thing. If I get a 9-to-5 (job), I won't have flexibility to leave the country and go to these competitions."

When Jones missed a spot in Athens after falling during the 2004 Olympic Trials, Shaver became a salesman for Jones.

Shaver told the big-time track sponsors, "Her day will come if given the opportunity."

That day did come.

Jones remembers walking to school during brutal Iowa winters because the family didn't own a car. Now, she's sponsored by Oakley and Asics — and has the ability to focus on track full time.

"My life changed," Jones said. "I went from eating ramen noodles to steak, fish and chicken — what an athlete should be eating."

Sponsorships allowed her routine access to massages, chiropractors and the tools other elite athletes used to maintain peak condition.

"It just helped me get the things an athlete needs to be successful," Jones said of the sponsors. "A businessman needs a laptop. Athletes need massages and the right diet."

Jones talks freely about the struggles that led her to China, where she begins competition on Sunday in the opening day of the 100-meter hurdles.

"A lot of it is, she's not ashamed of it," Carson said. "Her mom's been honest with her. She understands the struggle of a single parent."

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In the end, Jones continued to push, balked at chances to quite and traveled from a basement to the ultimate sports stage in Beijing.

"Lolo Jones is a great American story," he said. "You don't get that many anymore, with people who grew up poor and seize every opportunity. And she really did."

Bryce Miller is the sports editor of The Des Moines Register.

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