Rochester High salutes Olympian alum Lauryn Williams

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A standing ovation greeted Olympic medal winner Lauryn Williams when she entered the gym of her alma mater, Rochester Area High School, on Friday afternoon.

Ms. Williams, who has won three Olympic medals, including a silver in bobsledding last month at the winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, walked through two rows of cheerleaders to greet the crowd of students, teachers and parents, who waved American flags and held posters declaring their pride in her victories.

During a highlight video of her career, the students gasped at her athletic feats. But Ms. Williams, 30, downplayed her accomplishments. Wearing a T-shirt with the motto "I can't do it alone," she emphasized the debt she owes to Rochester for her success.

"There wasn't one person who inspired me," she told the students. "It was the community."

Ms. Williams, who was born in Pittsburgh and lived in Rochester from sixth grade until she left for college, learned the fundamentals of running during her time on the track team. Her record-breaking performances on the team propelled her career, leading to a silver medal in Athens in 2004 and a gold in London in 2012.

But her teachers in Rochester also prepared her for athletic stardom with life lessons such as the importance of showing kindness and speaking well, she said in a later interview. When she was younger, she had a tendency to handle things "like a hurricane," she said, until her teachers showed her that it was easier to approach problems calmly.

Ms. Williams' teachers, coaches and friends described her as headstrong and hard-working when she attended the school. At 5 feet 3 inches, she was unusually short for a sprinter, but she worked hard to make up for it, they said.

"She would take two steps when others would take one," said Jim Ebersberger, who was athletic director when she attended the school. "She worked hard to be who she was."

She was also a natural leader, they said, serving as class president all four years of high school. She was known for being assertive toward adults and taking charge in organizing field trips and dances.

Kathryn Gruber, the former principal of Rochester Area Middle School, reminisced about the time she met Ms. Williams.

"Hi, I'm Lauryn Williams," Ms. Williams said, according to Ms. Gruber. "When is our first dance?"

Ms. Williams, who lives in Dallas with her boyfriend, arrived in Rochester on Wednesday and is leaving Sunday. She's staying at the home of a close friend, Devan Parise, who was on the high school track team with her and is now the school's track coach. They've been eating at Ms. Williams' favorite restaurants, including the Hot Dog Shop and Rooster's.

The visit marks a turning point in Ms. Williams' career. She earned her silver medal in bobsledding after fellow Olympic athlete Lolo Jones suggested she try the sport. But now she's switching to a new career in financial planning, helping other athletes manage their money.

She decided to become a financial planner because she remembered how hard it was for her to manage her money after she earned a lucrative contract with Nike about a decade ago.

"At 20 years old and a six-figure contract, I was ill-prepared to deal with it," Ms. Williams said.

Ms. Williams won't discount the possibility of returning to athletics -- "I never say never," she said -- but she's devoting herself to her new career. She's nervous about the change but hopes that the contacts she made during her athletic career will help her find clients.

"Like everything else, if I work hard, I'll succeed at it," Ms. Williams said.

Richard Webner: or 412-263-4903.

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