Sprinter Lauryn Williams switches to the bobsled

Rochester native trying to slide back to Olympics


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Lauryn Williams left Pittsburgh a dozen years ago for the University of Miami's elite track and field program and never looked back, making her home in sunny South Florida, where she set her sights on becoming an Olympic champion.

It was nothing against Western Pennsylvania. She held a special place in her heart for her hometown of Rochester, but Miami was a natural fit for a world-class sprinter. She could train outside 365 days a year -- give or take a hurricane warning or two -- without fear of even a regular old cold front blowing through.

So to catch a glimpse of her Monday afternoon, bundled up in a red jacket in the lobby of a hotel in Winterberg, Germany, streaming live from her iPhone's FaceTime app, it was hard not to share an irony-laced chuckle with Ms. Williams.

Another chapter has begun, and if you know the heroine of this story, no plot turn should come as a surprise. Lauryn Williams, bobsledder. What, did you think that she was just going to retire from track and field and quietly disappear, toil away at a day job, find a husband, start a family? Ms. Williams, 30, is an adventure seeker, and this latest quest, to make the U.S. Olympic bobsled team for next month's Sochi Winter Games, is rich with intrigue. Never mind the idea of her competing in sub-zero temperatures wearing nothing but a spandex suit, asking for her trademark dreadlocks to freeze over.

"I've done a lot of channeling my inner childhood," Ms. Williams said, laughing. "I've been spoiled in Florida. The last race was -17 degrees. The high that day was 5. There was no indoor facility to warm up in. It was quite different."

What isn't different is the deep reservoir of competitive hunger that dwells within Ms. Williams, who won a silver medal in the 2004 Athens Games in the 100-meter dash, followed by a fourth-place finish in the 2008 Beijing Games. She took the 2010 season off, did some soul searching, then returned to the track in time to qualify for the 2012 London Games as an alternate. She was one of four runners who blew away the field in the semifinals of the 100-meter relay and brought home her first gold medal, even though she didn't run in the final.

After London, Ms. Williams knew that her days as a track star were numbered. An injury in the summer of 2013 forced her to retire, at peace with an illustrious career that many would not have predicted based on her 5-foot-3 frame. But Ms. Williams' legs could churn faster than most others in the world. Where would they take her now?

One day, she was at the airport and ran into Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones, who made her move to the bobsled in 2012. Ms. Jones told Ms. Williams about the "brakeman" spot in the two-woman tandem. Brakemen need to be able to run fast and generate enough power to give the driver an edge. Ms. Williams figured, why not?

She showed up at the U.S. National Push Championships in July in Calgary, one of 22 women with varying degrees of experience. With a bum leg and only one training session, she finished third. Soon, she'd have her first actual bobsled experience.

"I compare it to a roller coaster," Ms. Williams said. "Multiply it times 10, take the seat belts out, and yeah, that's bobsled."

Ms. Williams likes roller coasters (she went to Kennywood every year growing up, but admits that her favorite coasters were at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio). As thrilling as each bobsled run is for her, she seems to have it under control. In her first two World Cup races in December, she and her driver finished with silver.

There are three World Cup races left -- this weekend in Winterberg, next weekend in St. Moritz, Switzerland, and the next in Igls, Austria -- before the Olympic team will be announced on Jan. 19. There are six brakemen left who are competing for three spots. The selection will be made based on finishes down the stretch and overall chemistry with the drivers.

In a short time, Ms. Williams has proven herself to be a legitimate contender for Sochi, and, unexpectedly, her lifelong Olympic dream has been extended -- albeit into colder territory.

"I'm not surprised, because I know how I work under pressure," Ms. Williams said. "For this, someone else is depending on you. It's just like a relay. Your performance makes a difference for their performance. I think I've done really well because I know the driver is counting on me."

J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com or on Twitter @BradyMcCollough.


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