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Marion Jones representing US on diplomatic visits

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Former track star Marion Jones is making a series of diplomatic visits to Serbia and Croatia this week on behalf of the U.S. State Department, an international opportunity for her to continue rehabilitating her tarnished image.

Once considered the fastest woman in the world, Jones had a public downfall _ being forced to serve prison time and give back her five medals from the 2000 Sydney Olympics after lying to federal investigators about taking performance-enhancing drugs.

Since getting out of jail, she started a career in the WNBA _ playing a season and a half for the Tulsa Shock _ and has started a campaign to encourage others to think before making critical decisions.

This week, Jones is visiting with school children and other citizens in Serbia and Croatia, the former Yugoslav republics hit by war and earthquake in recent years.

"It paints a very positive picture of who we are as a country and the fact that she's here on the invitation of the United States government shows that our country believes in people always having opportunities to come back from adversity," said Ryan Rowlands, a public affairs officer for the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade who helped arrange Jones' visit. "So that's been a great part of this message."

Jones called it an honor to be chosen by the government to represent the country. She said it is the first time she has delivered her "Take a Break" message overseas, the crux of which encourages people to take their time before making key decisions but realize that even the hardest times can be overcome.

"I'm just so overjoyed and gratified to have been given this opportunity to assist the U.S. State Department in the quest to help people in Serbia and Croatia, people who have suffered _ help them see and achieve success in their lives and help the country rebuild," Jones said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I'm just overwhelmed and excited."

During stops in Nis and Belgrade, Jones held basketball clinics and visited with elementary and high school students. She is scheduled to make a presentation Thursday at the University of Zagreb in Croatia and to younger students before concluding her trip Friday.

"I think that this country is in the process of rebuilding," she said. "My story is one that I am also rebuilding from making some bad choices in the past, so I think that was one of the main reasons that I was chosen because I have decided to not give up in my quest to help people."

Jones said she encountered a particularly curious girl, perhaps 13 or 14 years old, who asked her a series of questions. She tried to encourage her to pursue her dreams, whether that's to be an Olympic gold medalist, a leader or something completely different.

"We've all been given different gifts and talents and it's how you get to it, how you bring it all to fruition that counts," Jones said.

Rowlands said he began pursuing Jones four months ago.

"With her excellent work already in the United States, we thought that teaming her up with young people here that also loved sports and cheered for their champions _ but many of whom also watched her succeed in her various deals _ we thought that was a natural fit," he said.

Jones said she hasn't closed the door on her basketball career, which got interrupted when she was cut by the league-worst Shock midway through the season, or on pursuing another role in the WNBA.

For now, she has appearances lined up through early next year to deliver her "Take a Break" message, and the State Department trip has her considering ways she can spread it globally.

"I surely hope that this is just the first of many opportunities that I get to share my message, talk about my journey and help people just live a better life," Jones said.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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