KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- Lauryn Williams' journey from track sprinter to bobsledder had brought her to this moment, standing by her teammate at the top of the track with a near-certain Olympic gold medal waiting down below.
For Williams, this seven-month excursion from reality had been so exotic, and the difference between her past life and this one was especially apparent now. The pressure was not on her. She was going to run as fast as she could, push as hard as she could, for a few seconds, and then she was going to hop in the sled and put her head down. Wherever they were going, it was Elana Meyers who would drive them there.
Williams had literally jumped on board Meyers' Olympic dream only days ago, when it was decided that they would be paired in the top U.S. sled. And suddenly there was Williams, who had starred in a mostly solitary sport for a decade, in the position to say something to Meyers before the biggest race of her life.
"You get out of that sled and cheer like you won it, no matter what happens," Williams told her.
That advice would come in handy a minute later, when Meyers would have to react to her worst race of the two-woman event. Williams, for her part, would have to make history Wednesday in bittersweet fashion -- she became the fifth athlete to medal in both the Summer and Winter Olympics -- with silver instead of gold. But she would be much more concerned with Meyers remaining positive during a trying time.
All those sprints in track, and nobody had ever been there with Williams at the starting or finish line to help shoulder the burden or offer a comforting word. Oh, she had had plenty of support on her way to a 2004 Olympic silver medal in the 100-meter dash, from family and friends sprinkled from Detroit to Miami to Rochester, Beaver County, but there was never any doubt whose fault it was if something went wrong.
Her role as an alternate on the 100-meter relay team at the 2012 London Games had given her a taste of what shared responsibility was like, but the other women still had their own individual medals to pursue. Plus, Williams only ran the qualification round in earning gold.
"The thing that's the most surprising for me is the growth that I've experienced," said Williams, 30, who graduated from Rochester High School. "If you asked me on my resume if I was a team player before, I would have said yes, and I learned that I had no idea about what being a team player was until this point."
After Tuesday night's two heats, Meyers and Williams led Canadians Kaillie Humphries and Heather Moyse by 0.23 seconds -- which is actually an eternity in this sport. The teams would have a day to make any adjustments to their sleds or their strategy, but it is extremely rare in the world of bobsledding for teams to make a comeback.
In Wednesday's third heat, Humphries and Moyse gained 0.12 seconds on Meyers and Williams. Now they could feel the stakes rising.
For the fourth and final heat, the Canadians had their worst run. All Meyers and Williams would need to clinch gold was a time of 58.02 seconds, which was 0.33 more than any of their previous runs.
Still, Williams had been through enough in the Olympics -- how about those two botched 100-meter relay handoffs in 2004 and 2008? -- to know that nothing was ever certain.
Now it was time to push. Williams yelled and stormed down the ice, powering them to a 5.16 second start. With start times of 5.13, 5.12, 5.12 and 5.16, the 2005 Fastest Woman in the World had produced the top four pushes of the competition.
But, hidden in the back of that black sled, Williams knew that the run was not going smoothly. After all, when the sled hits the wall going 80 mph, you can feel it, and that was happening way too often.
When they crossed the finish line with a time of 58.13, they knew that meant silver instead of gold. Meyers forced a smile and clapped, just like Williams had told her. It would be more of that for the next hour, as they received an ovation at the award ceremony and did round after round of interviews.
"Anytime you're that close, and you can taste it, and you don't come out with the result, it hurts a little bit," Meyers said. "At the end of the day, Kaillie beat me."
Another U.S. sled, carrying Jamie Greubel and Aja Evans, took the bronze medal.
With a gold, Williams would have become the second athlete and first woman to win gold in both the Summer and Winter Games. With her silver, she still entered the record books. Yet, she said she didn't even know any of that was possible until afterward.
"I didn't come here to make history," Williams said. "I came here to help Team USA."
Later, she would laugh at the fact that she could hardly remember the location of her 2004 silver medal.
"It's never about the medal for me," Williams said. "There's nothing more exciting than sliding with Elana tonight. I'm going to remember the talks we had today, and this week. It's not about this thing I get to hold in my hand."
Williams, who retired from sprinting last summer, said there's a small chance she would return to bobsled next year. She has moved from Miami to Dallas with her boyfriend, Will Lubbe, and she plans to do financial planning, hoping to eventually help athletes like herself with the management of their futures.
Wherever life takes her, she can feel comfortable knowing that, for one night in the mountains of Russia, she was the best push athlete in the world.
J. Brady McCollough: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published February 19, 2014 1:31 PM