Very few expected 2004 to be the revelation year for Tonique Williams-Darling yet the 28-year-old Bahamian won the Olympic Games gold medal and a share of the TDK Golden League Jackpot. As Michelle Schmitt reports she is now the new Diva of the one-lap event.
Just who knew back in 2000 when Tonique Williams-Darling finished sixth in the first round in Sydney that she would win the gold medal at the next Olympics? Who knew that running track as a youngster in the Bahamas, if she just kept training hard and making so many sacrifices, that she would split a million dollar purse in the same year as the gold medal victory?
Did Williams-Darling know? Was it part of her master plan?
“So many people told me in Athens two weeks before, even 2 days before that I was going to win the gold medal,” said Williams-Darling, a native of Nassau, Bahamas who now trains at Norfolk State.
“I said, ‘You are kidding.’ With all the training I have done, physically I prepared to win the gold medal, but not emotionally. It’s something that you can say you want. You know you want to do it, but you don’t quite know you can do it until you actually do it. It’s not something I could have said ‘yes I know this going to happen’, but once it happened I embraced it.
“Physically and mentally I was ready. But so many things could have happened. I could have gotten in a bad lane, tripped, cramped up, false-started. A lot of people said ‘you are going to win’, but all I wanted to do was do the things I needed to do so I didn’t cramp, so I didn’t get in the wrong lane. I wanted to make sure I was ready mentally and physically for each race.
“It’s something you can take for granted. You can run fast all year but if it goes to your head then you won’t win.”
After the Olympics, having already won four races before Athens, Williams-Darling secured wins in Brussels and Berlin and shared the TDK Golden League Jackpot with Sweden’s Christian Olsson. Will the half a million dollars change her, change her way of life?
”It is great winning the half a million dollars,” said Williams-Darling beaming. “But honestly I don’t feel any different. I look at in terms of any prize money or anything I earn on the circuit. I think if I were on the outside looking in, I would think ‘that person is rich!’ But I don’t feel any different - you don’t transform because of the money or the gold medal. You are who you are.”
It’s doubtful the money, the fame, the hero-worship in her own country will change her. Someone once said ‘Sometimes it takes years for a person to become an overnight success.’ Case in point as Williams-Darling started running track and field at an early age in the Bahamas. “Track and field is a big part of the culture in the Bahamas,” she explains. “I’ve run since I was little. We have ‘Sports Day’ for children and I think that’s where I first started.”
Pursued by American colleges and universities to run track while she was in high school, it’s something she was very interested in because there were no organized collegiate athletic programmes at home. She also wanted to give her mom, Deborah Williams, a break from the cost of bringing up a child in a private school. “I went to college to honour her and to thank her for the efforts she made and had put into my schooling,” said Williams-Darling, the second of four children.
Transferring to University of South Carolina from University of Georgia, she began to blossom her senior year. A two-time All-American and the 1998 400m Southeastern Conference champion for the Gamecocks (the track and field team for USC), she joined Charmaine Howell (800m runner who won a silver medal at the Sydney Olympic Games with Jamaica’s 4x400m relay) as the first two female All-Americans in USC track and field history.
She had been the 400m runner-up the three previous years at the conference championships and battling a 39-degree fever and the flu, her senior year she battled through to the end to win the 400m “I didn’t want to finish second again. I just couldn’t do it. I saw I was third rounding the curve and knowing I had a good finish, I ran for it all the way home,” said Williams-Darling.
“She was the Queen of Sprints at USC,” said Curtis Frye, who was in Athens as an assistant coach with the USA women’s team and there to congratulate Williams-Darling after her victory lap.
“She is the one who really got South Carolina rolling in that area from the start. Charmaine and Tonique started it off for USC on the track. At one point she held every record from 100m to 400m and with both relays. Some of her records have since been broken, but those people came to South Carolina because of the example she set for them. She is a wonderful person and the Gamecock family is very proud of her.”
In the USA from 1992 to 2000, she kept herself busy both in Athens (Georgia) and Columbia, S.C. She finished a degree in Business at USC in 1999. She continued to train under Frye for another year before moving to Houston. She knew she belonged deep in the heart of Texas to high school sweetheart Dennis Darling.
In high school Darling said the first time he saw Tonique walking down the hall, he immediately turned around to take a second look, to get a better look. “I thought to myself ‘I’m going to marry that woman someday,’” said Darling, who married Williams-Darling in April 2003.
Being separated from the love of her life off the track, Darling, who attended Houston University on a track scholarship, was easy Williams-Darling said.
“It was pretty easy because we are both so goal-orientated,” said Williams-Darling. “We never missed each other because we were busy pursuing our goals. Our relationship from the beginning was interesting in that we had this one special thing that kept us together - that love for each other. We just knew we would be together in the long run but we had a lot to accomplish first.”
Ask Williams-Darling to describe herself on the track and off the track and you get the same answer - very intense and aggressive. This 1.61m-tall dynamo knows what she wants in life and isn’t afraid to run after it. “My coach, Steve Redding, knows I am very serious at practice. I set my goals high and I don’t play around,” said Williams-Darling.
Her husband chuckles at that description, but he had a few words himself. “On the track, she is just fantastic. Just fantastic,” said Darling. “Off the track, she’s a diva. She really is. But she is also a loving and caring person. Just a wonderful person to be around.”
Darling ran on the Bahamas’ men’s 4x400m relay in Athens. The team had the third fastest time entering the finals but Darling wasn’t selected to run in the finals and the team finished seventh. “They needed Dennis. It’s disappointing for both of us and for our country,” said Williams-Darling.
In 2005, when the Bahamas host the CAC Championships, Williams-Darling expects her homeland to have a 4x400m relay. “I can run a 49, Christine Amertil can run a 50.1. We need a couple of younger runners to help us get the stick around. It’s important we start a development program for the relay now,” said Williams-Darling.
To hear her talk, you would think that she has begun campaigning for the Bahamas Federation presidency already. “I could run the federation!” said Williams-Darling “I don’t think our women’s 4x400m relay could go to the Olympics or World Championships yet, but we should be able to run it at the regional level. It’s important for the development of track and field in our country that we run a women’s 4x4.
“I have been toying with ways to contribute as a senior athlete. I would like to help more athletes in the Bahamas receive college scholarships so they can continue their track and field careers and also get a college education. When I retire, I might work in coaching or maybe work with the federation. I want to encourage more athletes to go to college from the Bahamas.
“I would work with colleges in the USA to help them identify Bahamians so they can continue to run and get their college degree. I have some ideas about what the best ways to give back are, but I am not ready to lay them all out today. I have to continue to think about it.”
Don’t think retirement is creeping in just yet. Turning 33 in January of 2009, she expects that 2009 could be her last year. “Beijing 2008 will be my last Olympics because I don’t see myself going to 2012 - I may run in 2009 but for sure not 2012,” said Williams-Darling.
Working so hard the past four years, a couple races crept in her mind for inspiration, “I can’t tell you how many times I thought about my race, Cathy Freeman’s race (in Sydney), Michael Johnson’s way of running,” said Williams-Darling “I’ve played it over in my head so many times. Even with my experience with my victory lap - the way I imagined she felt is the way I felt,” said Williams-Darling.
After the Olympics, Marie-Jose Perec, the Atlanta 400m gold medalist, shook her hand and gave her hug. “She said ‘So, you are the new 400m diva’,” said Williams-Darling. “I thought then, I did this, I did, I won the gold medal.”
Winning the gold medal over the favoured Ana Guevara (Mexico) was wonderful, but she felt positive vibes from her all year. “Ana was a real trooper all year, she never put her head down, she kept coming after me,” said Williams-Darling “She did it with a lot of spirit and I had a lot of positive vibes from her.”
Winning the gold medal hasn’t totally sunk in yet, but the reality of it also includes a surprise, the way her country has reacted.
“I think I have always known what it would mean to win the medal. What it would mean for my family, to my mother who sacrificed so much for me. For my coach - he now has an Olympic gold medallist. He has sacrificed a lot. It means so much to the Bahamas. You don’t even think in your daily training that this would mean so much to so many people and that’s something I am starting to deal with. The whole country was really supporting me this season - but I don’t always understand where the motivation comes from - maybe national pride. I guess that’s something I was not prepared for.”
Williams-Darling lost her final race of the season, at the IAAF World Athletics Final. While it was disappointing, her first loss of the year, she knew it was the end of a very long year. “After the initial disappointment of the race faded, Coach Redding called me and said - ‘my dear you’ve had a good season. We are both pleased. We’ve worked hard all year.’”
And no doubt, Tonique and Steve will work just as hard next year with the IAAF World Championships in Helsinki as their main goal.
Published in IAAF Magazine Issue 4 - 2004