Former Rochester sprinter Lauryn Williams again dreaming of Olympics


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MIAMI -- Her friends kept walking through the door, wearing black and purple, the colors of mourning. Lauryn Williams certainly wasn't dead, but the girl they knew had been retreating further and further inside for years now, and they felt she needed to know this was serious.

Williams was glad to see them, but as they arrived unannounced at her mother's home, one after the other, she got the feeling they hadn't ventured to suburban Miami for a backyard barbecue.

Since becoming the World's Fastest Woman in 2005, Williams' life had not gone according to plan. It was now August 2011, and she had not recorded another personal best. Even worse, her times had plummeted after taking the 2010 season off from intense training.

It was during that leave from the heat of competition that she was supposed to have found clarity. The 2009 season was her first without the bullish support of her father, longtime Rochester and Beaver County resident David Williams, who died of leukemia in October 2008. She realized that she was no longer running for herself and that, after so many consecutive years on the track, she truly didn't know who she was past Lauryn Williams, 2004 Olympic silver medalist.

She had heard stories about people who had gone out searching and actually found themselves, and this would be her personal period of discovery, her own chapter of "Eat, Pray, Love." She went sky diving, hurtling through the South Florida humidity and landing in the farmland of Homestead, Fla., invigorated. She went snow skiing, played in an organized women's flag football league and traveled to Italy with her best friend, riding in a gondola in Venice. Most important to her, she ate whatever she wanted.

When she returned from her exploration, it was right back to the track, and all she'd really acquired were more fantastic experiences and some extra weight on her muscular 5-foot-2 frame.

"It didn't work," says Jamillah Wade, Williams' friend who accompanied her to Italy. "We thought that the more we did it, we'd figure it out at some point. But nothing worked. She didn't figure anything out that she didn't already know."

In 2011, Williams failed to make the world championships for the first time in her career. Throughout a deflating few months, her bright and bubbly personality became gloomy too often. If she were going to make the 2012 U.S. Olympic team -- and become the young woman she wanted to be at the same time -- something had to change.

Wade and Williams' mother, Donna Williams, talked with a few other friends and decided they would meet with Lauryn and give her a jolt. They had indulged her impulses in hope of a new direction, and now it was their turn to offer a blueprint. They called it an "intervention."

That day, the group showed her a PowerPoint presentation, accompanied by music, with about 15 slides that listed her current "unLaurynlike" qualities. The tone alternated between heavy and light as Lauryn sat there overwhelmed, a tight bundle of conflicting emotions.

"Incredibly low," she says, "but also, just happy at the same time. Here are all these people outwardly expressing love, that they want what's best for me. It was a fight-or-flight thing. You can't roll over and give up."

During the presentation, the group suggested possible stimuli to help fuel her transition: Should she switch coaches? Should she move away from Miami after a decade here? The only certainty in that room was that Lauryn Williams, surrounded by the kind of blunt advocation her father could appreciate, was going to fight.

A regretful ending

David Williams had held strong so many times for his family, Lauryn would begin to assume the best in times of trouble. Repeatedly, he had knocked on death's door and had come back swinging harder than ever, so, when she heard her father was sick this time, it didn't immediately register as urgent.

"He was always one of those people that was so tough," Lauryn says. "People would tell you that he was sick, and you'd go, 'How sick?' That's what he taught us. He didn't want it to be a big deal."

On a Sunday morning in October 2008, Lauryn booked a Tuesday flight to Pittsburgh to see him in her hometown of Rochester. He died the day she booked the flight.

Lauryn was never one to show her emotions, and she came to Rochester for the funeral in a rigid state, considering the circumstances. They had not ended on the best terms. She had pulled away as he was trying to bring her close in what would be his final days, and she did not get to say goodbye. But she listened to the eulogies given by a cousin and a childhood acquaintance, both of whom David had taken under his wing as children and shepherded to better lives, and Lauryn's stubbornness became all too clear.

"It was the moment I realized, 'God, I've totally screwed this up, and now he's dead,' " Lauryn says. "I figured he would fly out of the casket, but he didn't. I had a lot of regret. I didn't really know that he was going to die."

From the moment that sixth-grader Lauryn moved in with David's new family in Rochester, her sprinting became a joint venture. It was David who took her to the Carnegie Science Center and encouraged her time after time to race against the video of former Olympic sprinter Florence Griffith-Joyner until she beat FloJo's time. That's when David was convinced he had a special talent on his hands.

It was David, the Trinidad and Tobago native with the booming baritone, who would drive her to races all over the Midwest and make sure to be the last voice she heard before the gun went off.

It was David who captured the country's imagination in 2004, traveling to watch his 20-year-old diva of a daughter compete in the Athens Olympics despite having to undergo daily dialysis treatments in a Greek hospital.

That year, in just her third season at the University of Miami, Lauryn won the NCAA championship in the 100 meters and, before she knew it, she was America's best chance at gold in the marquee event. She had a baby face, a sweet smile and a father who wouldn't take no for an answer. David was able to go thanks to a $10,000 donation from Sewickley Heights businessman Tim Wiebe, a cancer survivor himself.

On the ground in Greece, David sat at a McDonald's and did an interview with USA Today. The headline of the story read, "At the Olympics, a father's love knows no limits." Lauryn and David were Olympic darlings, and he'd look on with the rest of the family as she brought home the silver. Cameras found David and showed him on the video board at Olympic Stadium.

He was there for the inglorious finishes, too. In the 4x100 meter relay final, Lauryn, the anchor of the relay, had a failed exchange with Marion Jones, disqualifying the U.S. team from medal contention. By the time Lauryn received the baton from Jones, she had gone too far from her starting spot. Lauryn admitted afterward that she had left too early, but David was having none of that.

"She was primed and ready to go," David said. "Marion Jones just dropped the ball."

As the 2008 Beijing Games approached, David was sick again, and doctors wouldn't clear him to go. He watched from afar as Lauryn finished fourth in the 100 behind three Jamaican sprinters and suffered another botched handoff in the 4x100 relay that eliminated the U.S. for a second straight Olympics. David always said that Lauryn ran better when he was there, and there's little doubt that thought crossed his mind at home in Rochester.

Within three months, David was gone forever, and Lauryn was back in Miami, training for a 2009 season that never had her full focus. But it wasn't as if she was spending much time processing the loss of her father.

"I've never seen Lauryn cry," says Wade, who met Lauryn when the two ran for Miami. "After he died, I expected a lot more out of her. I expected her to grieve and go through this whole process, but she didn't. It was almost like, you wait for the breakdown, and the breakdown never happened."

Many in the world of track and field would view Lauryn's decision to walk away from the sport that had bestowed upon her fame, glory and a jet-setting existence as a breakdown in judgment. Her coaches and trainers, the people she trusted most, warned her that she may never be the same if she came back.

Lauryn weighed her options and couldn't shake what her gut was telling her. She had been sprinting nonstop since she was 9 years old, and maybe it was time to start running a new race.

Free falling

David and Donna Williams raised a well-rounded daughter. At Miami, Lauryn earned a finance degree. Then she added a real estate license. In 2008, as she trained for Beijing, she got an online MBA from the University of Phoenix. And she loved to cook -- a talent that was sure to draw the man of her dreams.

Except, when Lauryn came home each day to the suburban Miami home that she purchased as a 20-year-old with her first Nike contract, no Mr. Right was waiting for her, and she didn't have the time to cook anyway, opting instead for most of her meals at Donna's place.

Lauryn's life had been pretty fabulous. She knew that. But who's life was she living? And where was it going to take her once her powerful legs stopped moving as fast?

"It's just been really tough trying to define what it is for myself," Lauryn says. "I know I'm talented, I know I'm gifted, and this is a wonderful opportunity that I won't be able to do forever, but, at the same time, I've never really been as defined by track and field. It's never been my thing the same way it has for some of my friends in the sport who want to be legendary and stuff like that."

Lauryn didn't directly inform her mother that she was taking a year off from track. But Donna started to figure it out when her daughter was spending more time lying on her sofa than making the commute to Coral Gables for practice.

Amy Deem, Lauryn's coach at Miami, understood her star runner's need for personal time, but she also had never heard of a runner in her prime years taking a year off for anything other than pregnancy or to recover from injury. But this was Lauryn's journey, and they'd have to let her go.

There was snow skiing in New England with Donna and family friends. Lauryn skied for three days and was bold enough to attempt a black diamond slope her final day.

"I was totally freaked out!" she says. "I was like, 'Why'd you bring me up here?' "

She got down the mountain, navigating the moguls carefully, and then it was back to Miami, where rapper Trick Daddy invited her to play on his women's flag football team.

The plan was to just send Lauryn deep and throw it up to her for touchdown after touchdown, but there was a catch -- Lauryn had no hands.

"I was horrible," she says. "I lack coordination. They were looking at me like I was going to be the go-to person. They'd throw it to me, and it'd be on the ground. It definitely gave me a new respect for players."

Throughout her time away, finding a man became a priority. Lauryn had been meeting most of the men she dated in the track world, so Wade wanted to get her out and about in more normal settings. Each Wednesday, Wade took her to a spot where they could mingle.

Lauryn met attorneys, doctors, you name it, but nobody fully clicked with her.

"'I suck at dating," she says.

Wade has an explanation.

"Lauryn is extremely picky about guys," Wade says. "So we were trying to find a perfect guy. Who is he? Where is he? We couldn't find him. She's extremely intelligent, and she gets bored easily."

Lauryn had one final deeper mission that she wanted to complete before returning to the track in 2011. In December 2010, she traveled to Trinidad for 10 days, seeking to feel closer to -- and closure with -- her father.

Much of David's family was still there, and this place was a part of her she never knew. Her father was an expert cook, having opened a restaurant in Aliquippa, and she wanted to learn how to cook his Trinidadian dishes such as chicken curry.

"It did put me a little more in touch with him," Lauryn says. "The culture as a Trinidadian kid, we never really embraced it. We were American kids with a Trinidadian father. I just really wanted to get a feel for what it was like."

She came back to the track rejuvenated, expecting a seamless return. When that didn't happen, when she had to watch women she believed were lesser runners celebrating because they'd beaten Lauryn Williams, it humbled and depressed her.

The intervention was coming, and tough questions would be asked. How was she going to fix it? She began talking with coaches from around the country about working with them in preparation for this summer's London Games, and she strongly considered moving to Austin or Dallas in the fall. But Lauryn stayed loyal to Deem, who had been by her side for a decade.

Still, she had to get out of this rut. She began researching condos in downtown Miami, places that would make her feel 28 years old instead of 38 and put her in the position to meet that perfect guy.

On Oct. 1, she left behind her safe suburban life and moved into a 52nd-floor condo overlooking Biscayne Bay and Miami Beach. Whatever was going to happen in 2012, it was going to come with a breathtaking view.

This one's for Lauryn

A day with Lauryn Williams at 28 is full of contradictions.

Traveling on the above-ground Miami Metro Rail from her condo to her physical therapy session, she takes an elevator to go down.

"Sprinters are the laziest people," she says.

Yet, riding in her silver Honda RidgeLine pickup truck to go grocery shopping at Whole Foods on South Beach, it takes every bit of restraint she has not to run a woman on a yellow scooter off the road.

"I just hate these little scooters!" she says. "She's holding up my life right now! Why would it take us 10 minutes to get there when it can take us five! Complete disaster!"

Her patience comes and goes, but the infectious smile and excitable tone of voice rarely leave her.

She has reinvested in her running -- doubling down one last time on a bet that her body will follow along with her mind and rise to the occasion. Trainer Lisa Kearns, who has trained professional athletes such as Mike Piazza and Ty Law, is in charge of the body.

Lauryn leans back on a padded bench, letting Kearns tweak her tissue and muscles.

"A Ferrari," Lauryn says. "I require lots of love and care."

Everybody laughs. Even when Lauryn is taking care of her career responsibilities, the reality that she's a vibrant young woman who is still searching for life fulfillment is never far away.

"I'm gonna meet a guy today!" she announces to Kearns. "I'm putting it into the universe!"

Kearns says it still remains to be seen whether the year away can become a positive for Lauryn's running. While she wants to make the Olympic team for the third straight time -- the trials are June 21 to July 1 in Eugene, Ore.-- her overall goal is to run another personal best, beating her previous mark of 10.88 seconds. Her best time this season is 11.17, and Deem says that for her to make the team she likely would have to approach her personal record.

There's no question Lauryn has put everything into it. Since September, she has been on a mostly vegan and raw food diet, chipping away at the pounds she added in 2010. Her weight fluctuates more now -- a product of getting older -- but her mind is in the right place. Recently, she stopped dating a man she met in her building because he was unwilling to change his unhealthy eating habits. Nothing will get in her way -- for now.

What if she doesn't make it to London? Some close to her won't hear that as a possibility.

"Oh, heck yes, she's got another in her," Donna Williams says. "Unequivocally. And I think she could have another one in her after that. I'm seriously looking forward to going to London. I'm not accepting anything less!"

Lauryn knows her mother is banking on another magical trip overseas, and she often can feel her father watching her from above, rooting her forward. But she says she's doing it for herself this time.

Eight months after her friends voluntarily came to her aid, the sense is that Lauryn's move downtown has renewed her in some way. Maybe it's the view, maybe it's the new diet, maybe it's the daily interaction with the city folk on the public train. Whatever it is, it is better than it was.

"Lauryn is extremely happy right now," Wade says. "She is very stable. Emotionally, she's in the best state of mind I've seen her in the last two years."

Lauryn feels it, too. If she doesn't make the Olympics, she says she will be OK. Her desires of more Olympic medals now mingle with dreams of opening up a food truck with her mother in downtown Miami.

The best sign that Lauryn Williams might have one more burst of glory in her? A month ago, Wade noticed that Lauryn had changed her status and picture on her BlackBerry messenger account.

The picture now shows Lauryn years ago, at the top of her game. The message with it? She's somewhere in me.

olympics - sportsother - hsother

J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published May 6, 2012 4:00 AM


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