Marion Jones Thompson at the 2000 Olympic Games

Photo: AP/Kevin Frayer

During the summer of 2000, track-and-field star Marion Jones Thompson earned the admiration of millions at the Sydney Olympic Games. After winning three gold and two bronze medals, Marion was considered the fastest woman alive and, perhaps, the finest female athlete in the world.

Not long after her triumphant return to the United States, Marion was accused of using performance-enhancing drugs, which she vehemently denied. Then, in 2004, ABC aired an exclusive 20/20 interview with Victor Conte, founder of the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO). During the interview, Victor said he sat next to Marion while she injected herself with an anabolic steroid known as "the clear" in 2000.

Three days later, the International Olympic Committee began investigating these allegations. Three years later, Marion finally admitted the truth to a grand jury.

On October 5, 2007, Marion called a press conference to offer a public apology and take responsibility for her actions. "So it is with a great amount of shame that I stand before you and tell you that I have betrayed your trust," she said. "I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me."

Marion pled guilty to two counts of making false statement to federal agents. She was stripped of her medals and, eventually, her freedom.
Marion Jones Thompson

Marion was sentenced to six months in prison for lying to federal agents and for her role in a check fraud scam. In March 2008, Marion said goodbye to her husband and two young sons and left to serve her time in a Texas women's prison.

Now, just weeks after her release, she's speaking about her life-changing experiences for the first time. During the six-month period, Marion says she had her ups and downs.

"There were moments, Oprah, where I felt like my world was over. I wasn't with my family. I wasn't with my kids. I had made such a huge mistake, let so many people down, disappointed myself," she says. "And there were remarkably days where I just felt empowered almost. It's almost like I got this renewed energy where I felt that, 'I'm here for a reason.' The searching for that reason, I think, is what really changed my life."

As a prison inmate, Marion says you have a lot of downtime, and before she went in, she says she vowed to make the most of that time. "Parents are always complaining, 'I don't have enough time to do this,'" she says. "So before I went, I said, 'You know what, I'm going to make sure I have enough time to figure out what's going on in my world—why I made certain choices, why am I here, and now, what can I do to turn all of this around.'"

Marion may be out of prison, but she says she's still serving part of her sentence. She's on probation for two years and required to complete 800 hours of community service. To travel to The Oprah Show, Marion says she had to get permission from her probation officer.

For the rest of her life, Marion will also have to disclose that she's a convicted felon, which means she'll have to forgo some of her rights as a United States citizen...including the right to vote in the 2008 election.
Marion Jones Thompson

How did Marion go from a celebrated athlete to a convicted felon? Looking back, she says a split-second decision she made years ago changed the course of her life.

In 2001, Marion says she was invited to meet with federal prosecutors who were investigating the use of performance-enhancing drugs among athletes. "They're asking me different questions about the whole involvement with the use of performance-enhancing drugs and sport," she says. "Then, they then pulled out the little vial, I can say, and pushed it across the table."

Marion says she recognized the clear liquid as a supplement her coach, Trevor Graham, had given to her on several different occasions. The prosecutors, however, informed her that the vial actually contained a steroid known as "the clear." "Before they showed it to me, I never knew what it looked like because it wasn't introduced to me as 'the clear,'" she says. "So when they showed it to me and they said, 'This is the substance,' and I knew that I had taken that substance. I made the decision that I was going to lie. I was going to try and cover it up."

It only took three or four seconds for Marion to make the choice that would come back to haunt her. "It's one of those moments that you wish you could go back, and you wish you can have again," she says.

Trevor was later convicted of one count of lying to federal investigators. He denies providing Marion Jones or any other athletes with steroids.
Marion Jones Thompson

Marion says she lied to prosecutors because she knew that if she admitted she'd unknowingly taken the steroid, all of her track-and-field performances would be questioned. "I know I had worked hard, and I know I've been blessed with a great amount of talent," she says. "But I didn't know in my heart of hearts how much [the drug] aided much that assisted me at the Sydney Games."

In that fateful moment, Marion says many thoughts ran through her head. "I thought about my family. I thought about how proud they were when I won the medals and when I achieved success and how disappointed they would be," she says. "I thought about my finances. I thought about my sponsors."

If Marion had taken a few minutes to consider her decision, she says she might not be where she is today. "If I had stopped the interview that I was having with the prosecutors, walked out of the room, spoken with my attorneys...just taken five minutes, I think things would be different," she says. "Sometimes we make decisions on impulse, you know?"
Marion Jones Thompson and Oprah

Marion still denies allegations made by BALCO founder Victor Conte. During his 2004 interview with 20/20 reporter Martin Bashir, Victor says he saw Marion inject herself with "the clear."

Victor: She did the injection with me sitting right there next to her.

Martin: Right in front of you?

Victor: Right in front of me.

Marion says she only met Victor a few times in the past and claims that he lied in the interview. "I know that what I admitted to federal prosecutors was the truth," Marion says. "I don't know his reasons or his motives." Marion says she never had a formal relationship with Victor and never asked him for advice. "My coach at the time, Trevor Graham, had a relationship with him and went to him asking for supplement advice for the group and for myself," she says. "That's how the whole connection started."
Marion Jones Thompson

While Marion was preparing for the Olympic Games, she says she never discussed supplements or training regimens with other athletes. "Things are very hush-hush in the world of athletics, particularly when it comes to supplements and vitamins because nobody wants to give anybody else the edge," she says.

After taking these "supplements," which she says she believed to be flaxseed oil, Marion says she noticed she had more energy on the track. She also remembers getting a second wind, at times, and feeling good after a workout when she normally wouldn't. She says she did not attribute these improvements to the possible use of performance-enhancing drugs. "I attributed the difference to hard training, finally getting the supplements working in conjunction with what I'm doing," she says. "And so the results were being shown on the track—everything put together was working."

Marion says she never considered the possibility that she had been given a steroid. Since she was training for the Olympic Games, she says she expected to feel good. "[I thought,] 'I know I'm supposed to feel a little bit stronger, a little bit faster. I'm preparing on the track. I'm preparing in the weight room. The supplements are together. Everything's coming together,'" Marion says. "'I'm supposed to be better this year.'"
Marion Jones Thompson

In hindsight, Marion says she believes her coach knew he was giving her a steroid, but she does not hold him responsible for the outcome. "I hold myself responsible first of all, for lying to federal prosecutors," she says. "But [also] for not being more careful with the people that I associated with and not questioning people more."

After her meeting with federal prosecutors, Marian says she never spoke with her coach about what happened or made any rash decisions because she thought people would become suspicious. "I simply continued the lie, continued saying, 'I know that I've never taken performance-enhancing drugs,' or a lot of times, what I would say, 'I have never knowingly taken performance-enhancing drugs,'" she says. "Then, I was able to kind of live with myself."

As part of her punishment, Marion's competition times were wiped from the record books, and she was forced to give back her medals from the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Marion says representatives of the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Track & Field came to her house to retrieve the medals. "It wasn't as difficult to give back the medals because it's not about the hardware, it was about that memory. That memory is what will be tarnished," she says. "I remember crossing the line and looking up and seeing my mother and seeing my family, just the pride in their faces."

Marion says she sometimes thinks about how different her life would be if she had never taken "the clear." How much did the drug really affect her performance? Could she have won those medals without it? "And I usually answer yes, I still think I would have won," she says. "But just the fact that there's a question mark, to me, is not fair [to the other athletes]."

In her tearful press conference, Marion specifically apologized to many people for letting them down. She did not, however, apologize to her sprint relay teammates—even though they were later stripped of their medals because of her doping. Marion says that omission was not on purpose, but due to the fact that her focus was on her family. "I didn't make the choice not to," she says. "It just got blended in with everything else. That whomever I have hurt, whoever has [been] hurt because of this, I apologize."

Marion says she was not opposed to giving her own medals back and did so before her incarceration. She only found out that her teammates would have to give back theirs during her time in prison. "To have to give up your gold medals is horrible, but it comes down to I made a choice to lie. My intent was never to harm them," she says. "When I stepped on the track with them in Sydney, I thought we were going for the gold medal, and everybody on that track was drug-free, including myself. I never stepped on that track with the intent to try and cover anything up and help them to win by doing something illegally. So I apologize to everybody that my choice to lie has affected—including them."
Marion Jones Thompson and Oprah

Marion has been quoted as saying she paid the ultimate price for her errors. Is prison time that ultimate price? "No, I wouldn't consider that the ultimate price. The ultimate price is having your name and your reputation and everything that you stood for just ripped away," she says. "Going to prison ... just tops it off."

During her six months behind bars, Marion says she met some very interesting and inspiring women. "When I started hearing their stories, it started giving me strength. 'You know what? If that lady down the hall can get through it and wake up every morning and smile and have the energy to get through the day, I certainly can. I have three more months here, I can do this.'"

While her media exposure—including a helicopter circling the prison on the day she arrived—ensured everyone at the prison knew her, Marion says she was treated just like all the other inmates. She even had jobs in the prison, working as a baker and cleaning floors.

While being away from her family was the hardest aspect of prison life, Marion says the second-hardest part was having to follow orders. "When you're growing up and you've moved out of your parents' home, you think you're away from that. It's like the biggest slap in the face when they tell you when to stand up and they tell you when to lay down," she says. "It doesn't matter if you're Marion Jones or not."
Marion with her two sons, Monty and Amir

Marion says was allowed to bring only a tiny number of personal possessions to jail with her—a Bible, a few photos, and a list of important addresses and phone numbers. Marion says she spent much of her six-month sentence writing to friends and family. "I learned that the only real way that I could communicate how I was feeling, how I was doing, with my family—in particular my husband—was to write long letters every day," she says. "About important stuff, mundane stuff, my feelings on how I feel about the boys, where I'm at, who I'm meeting, the incredible stories that these women are sharing with me."

Marion says her lowest point in prison was missing time with her children, including both of her sons' birthdays. "Having to be away from them and not experiencing those milestones, you can't ever get those back," she says.

Watch Marion read a letter she sent her sons from prison. Watch

Since her release, Marion says she has a newfound love for her freedom. "I appreciate so much more now the little things—going to the supermarket, being able to buy whatever I want," she says. "There are days where I drive to pick up my son, and I just thank God that he's given me the gift to do that. There are so many days when I was in prison when I had wished I could have ... just held my kids or picked up the phone and called my best friend."
Marion Jones Thompson

While she was disappointed to be sent away, Marion says she believes her sentence was fair. "I believe in the legal system, Oprah, and I didn't want to go," she says. "Sure, I can compare my story to recent stories about other athletes or other people who were involved in certain situations and didn't get much time. It would be easy to do that. It would be easy to point the finger and say, 'It's the judge.' Or it's that. But you know what? It's me. I made the bad choice to put my future and my freedom in somebody else's hands to make that choice for me. I did that. And because of that, I have to live with it."

Marion says her experience has taught her to question other people's motives. It has also forced her to realize she can no longer hide behind athletic prowess. "In the past, it was 'Marion Jones, the athlete.' And Marion Jones, the person, a lot of times, got to hide behind that. And while I was in prison, I learned that I used the athlete part of it all as a cover for a lot of my weaknesses. I think a lot of the choices that I made in the past were because of those weaknesses," she says. "Now, of course, I don't have that cover anymore and I have really had to find out who I am."

With her life of athletic competition and very public legal ordeals behind her, Marion says she is eager for the future. "I am energized by this next chapter. I think really it's going to be bigger and better than that last," she says. "My goal now is to find out how to connect with people on a much bigger level. How can I help young people make certain choices and not make certain bad choices like I did? ... What am I going to do with this negative experience and turn it into a positive?"