Williams, Lauryn

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Lauryn Williams

1983–

Track and field athlete

As the 2004 Olympic silver medalist and 2005 world champion at the 100-meter race distance, Lauryn Williams ranked as one of the top sprinters in the world, and her best years—sprinters typically peak in their late 20s—were still ahead of her. But even at a young age, Williams showed something more than sheer speed on the track: she had perspective. Intensely competitive, she nevertheless had a life beyond track and field. To a sport troubled by accusations of illicit use of performance-enhancing drugs leveled against many of its top stars, Lauryn Williams seemed to offer the hope of renewal.

Lauryn Williams was born, one of two brothers and six sisters, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on September 11, 1983. She grew up partly in Rochester, Pennsylvania, on Pittsburgh's northwest outskirts, where her father, David Williams, a Vietnam War veteran and former General Motors district manager, kept busy as a minister while undergoing treatments for leukemia and later for associated kidney problems. As Williams began her career, her father was undergoing dialysis treatments and was on a waiting list for a kidney transplant. Still, David Williams would drive his daughter to meets several hours away. "He never let it get him down," Williams told Amy Shipley of the Washington Post. "He always kept the burden on himself. It was definitely sad on his bad days, but he was always a positive person. He kept going."

Dreamed of Anesthesiology Career

Williams divided her time between Rochester and Detroit, where her mother, Donna, was an eighth-grade teacher in the city's public schools. Donna Williams wasn't athletic and didn't particularly encourage her daughter's athletic abilities. Sports were not the only thing on young Lauryn Williams' mind, however. She developed a deep love of learning and set her sights high: by the time she was five, she had decided that she wanted to be an anesthesiologist. Her academic interests did not diminish her desire to play sports. She was disgusted by the halfhearted play of the other girls in her neighborhood, and she also tried out karate, gymnastics, ballroom dancing, and basketball, which she loved but, at five-feet two, didn't have the height for. Then, as a preteen, she started to race.

"She beat all the girls in the neighborhood, then she beat all the boys," Donna Williams told Shipley. "Then she proceeded to beat all the teenage boys." She also climbed two more hurdles before she and her family started to think in terms of top-level athletics. After she wore out the family German Shepherd in a marathon backyard session, her mother took her to a Detroit Police Athletic League track camp. David Williams's moment of truth came as he watched his daughter run up and down along an exhibit featuring a moving image of sprinter Florence Griffith-Joyner, trying to outrace the famed champion. Williams herself had a range of interests but realized that a track scholarship would help her finance a college education, which she planned to help fund with money earned at after-school jobs at Wendy's and Subway.

Williams joined her high school track team in Pennsylvania, and she quickly attracted attention with her speed. She went to a national meet in California as a sophomore, beginning a long rivalry with sprinter Muna Lee. By the time she graduated from Rochester High School in 2001, she had two high school state championships under her belt, at 100 and 200 meters, and she had been named to All-American and All-State teams as a junior. From the beginning, Williams was centered and handled pressure and change well. "It was weird because Detroit is tough inner-city life and we lived in an African-American neighborhood," she told Donald McRae of London, England's Guardian. "But then in Pennsylvania I was the only African-American girl in my [graduating] class. That helped prepare me for all the different situations you get in the big outside world."

Won NCAA Championships

At the University of Miami in Florida, Williams blazed through a degree in finance in three and a half years while finding time for Olympic training and an engagement in the summer of 2004 to her boyfriend, former Miami Hurricanes fullback Talib Humphrey. She took home gold medals in the 100-meter dash and the 4×100 relay at the 2003 Pan-American Games in the Dominican Republic, and she won or made the medal stand in several regional collegiate events. After she blew away the competition at the 2004 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championships with a time of 10.97 seconds at 100 meters, Williams began to think about competing in the Olympics. Her first crucial test came at the 2004 Olympic Trials, held in July of 2004 in Sacramento, California.

Facing a tough field that included veteran sprinters Marion Jones and Gail Devers, Williams made a tough mistake: she tripped coming out of the starting blocks. Then she did the unthinkable: over ten blazing seconds she rose from last place on the track to third, passing Jones, Devers, and Muna Lee along the way and qualifying for the Olympic team. Friends and strangers joined together in both Detroit and suburban Pittsburgh to send Williams's parents to Athens, Greece, for the Olympic Games in August, and to finance the six dialysis treatments David Williams would need while he was there.

On August 21, 2004, in Athens, Williams ran a personal best of 10.96 seconds at 100 meters to win an Olympic silver medal. She led for much of the race but was overtaken at the finish by Yuliya Nesterenko of Belarus, who had been ranked 113th in the world prior to the event. Some suspected Nesterenko of using illicit drugs; she had failed a drug test in 2002 but had been readmitted to competition due to accreditation problems at the testing lab. Williams went on an emotional roller-coaster ride, telling McRae of the Guardian that "at first I was excited to get silver. But then I had a few days where I was in a deep funk about it. I had come second to someone who came from out of nowhere. And, more than that, second in most races means nothing. But then a few people spoke to me, and ever since then I've been very happy with my silver medal."

At a Glance …

Born on September 11, 1983, in Pittsburgh, PA; daughter of David Williams, a minister and former automotive manager, of Rochester, PA, and Donna Williams, a teacher, of Detroit, MI; engaged to Talib Humphrey (professional football player), 2004. Education: Miami University, FL, BA, 2004.

Career: Track and Field athlete, 1990s–; Olympian, 2004.

Awards: U.S. junior champion, for 100-meter sprint, 2002; Pan American Games, Dominican Republic, gold medals, for 100-meter sprint and 4×100-meter relay, 2003; Olympic silver medalist, for 100-meter sprint, 2004; World Track and Field Championships, Helsinki, Finland, world champion, for 100-meter sprint and 4×100-meter relay; U.S. Outdoor 100-meter championship, silver medal, 2006.

Addresses: Sponsoring organization—USA Track & Field, One RCA Dome, Suite 140, Indianapolis, IN 46225; Web—www.laurynwilliams.net.

Won World Championship

One factor that cheered Williams up was that she was still very much on an upward slope when she came to her career. The next time Nesterenko raced against Williams, at the Prefontaine 100 in Oregon in June of 2005, she finished last, and Williams took first place. "I'm not saying I was out for revenge, but it was nice not to hear those footsteps like I heard [in Athens]," Williams told Tim Layden of Sports Illustrated. Williams bested her personal record with a time of 10.88 seconds in Zurich, Switzerland, and in August of 2005 she came in first on a rain-drenched track in Helsinki, Finland, to become the world champion at the 100-meter distance. The modest Williams attributed her victory to her experience training in wet conditions, telling Layden that "we get hurricane rain in Miami."

For some observers, Williams's positive spirit boded well for a sport troubled by the scourge of performance-enhancing drugs, and Williams expressed the hope that she could appear as a guest on the television program Oprah to discuss the problem. She became involved in a variety of community programs and events, and she launched a cereal brand, Fast Flakes, in 2005. An example of her community work is the Lauryn Williams Dynamic Female Athlete Scholarship Fund, which she funded with a portion of the profits from her cereal and money she pledged for each 100-meter race she ran under 11 seconds, among other things.

Williams performed consistently in the first months of 2006, with a silver medal in the 60-meter sprint at the World Indoor Championships in Russia and several other top finishes. A new rivalry developed between Williams and sprinter Veronica Campbell of Jamaica. "When I'm training, I'm trying to beat Veronica," Williams was quoted as saying in the Grand Rapids Press. "When I'm going to cheat on a sit-up, I think, 'What would Veronica be doing right now?'" On the minds of both sprinters and their top rivals were the Olympic Games in 2008 and 2012, and at 100 meters, Lauryn Williams looked to be the woman to beat.

Sources

Periodicals

Detroit Free Press, June 21, 2006; June 24, 2006.

Grand Rapids Press (Grand Rapids, MI), January 22, 2006, p. D12.

Guardian (London, England), August 15, 2005, p. 22.

Miami Herald, June 26, 2006.

Sports Illustrated, June 13, 2005, p. 83; August 15, 2005, p. 44.

Washington Post, August 9, 2004, p. D1.

On-line

"Bio," Lauryn Williams, www.laurynwilliams.net (July25, 2006).

"Lauryn Williams," USA Track & Field, www.usatf.com/athletes./biog/Williams_Lauryn.asp (July 25, 2006).