In events where success is measured in hundredths of seconds, staying on top of the sport means staying on top of everything. It means staying healthy, staying focused, staying positive, and staying motivated. Just ask Angela Williams, this year's U.S. champion in the 60m dash and owner of the year's third-fastest mark (7.11s). Williams won silver medals in this event in 2001 and 2003, but the years since 2004 and the Athens Olympics have been less successful.
Williams' record of top-level 100m times stretches back to 1990, when she ran 12.85 and 26.99 at the age of 10. After winning the California high school championship, the most competitive state title in the USA, at 15, and qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Trials at 16, Williams won four Junior national titles in five tries. At the University of Southern California, Williams won four consecutive NCAA titles in the 100m, a feat unmatched by any other woman or man.
Williams' strength and speed out of the blocks, made her an asset on the first leg of the 4x100m Relay. And after passing up a spot on the U.S. team for the 1999 World Championships, Williams carried the baton in the qualifying rounds in Edmonton and in the final in Paris.
...but empty-handed in Athens
Which brings us to the starting blocks in Athens. Again, Williams led off for the U.S., handing off to Marion Jones at the end of the bend with the lead. As Williams slowed, she watched Jones down the backstretch, and saw her Olympic medal hopes evaporate as the exchange from Jones to Lauryn Williams went bad. The baton never reached the finish, and Angela Williams went home without what should have been a sure medal.
It was two years in to her professional career, and Williams was struggling. Her PB remained the 11.04 she ran in her first year at university. In 2005, Williams failed to break 11.20 for the first time since 1996. The injuries of 15 years of hard running were catching up.
Broken bones, bruised pride
"I had both shins fractured," Williams recalls, "and I ran on them for two years. I had surgery on one of them after the Olympics, and they wanted to try to do the other one, and I said no way, after going through the rehab for the first one. I rushed back in '05 and the leg was too weak. In '06 I was out of shape because of the years with the fractures. I pretty much ran the '03 and '04 season off pool and bike workouts."
By then, Williams had had enough. Looking back over her career, she decided that it made the most sense to rewind to the coach who had led her to some of her best times: her father. "I went back to my dad, and then I hooked up with Garfield Ellenwood."
"I mentally needed to go back," Williams goes on. "I was frustrated with everything. I had no confidence. I'd lost my vibe. He was so excited, saying, 'All right, let's go, let's hit it!' He was killing me, he doesn't let up on me at all. But it was cool because he was with me. I had a lot on my shoulders, and I'm at peace now."
"We started doing the work to get me back where I used to be. Then just when I was on a roll, I tore my hamstring last year in Zagreb." That was the end of the 2007 season, but Williams hadn't given up on this comeback.
Finding the silver lining – ‘Running because it’s what I like to do’
"I kept saying, oh my gosh, I made the Olympic team on broken shins! Come on, Angie! You have to find some positives in the negativity, or you will not make it in this sport. I try to think positively about everything."
"I was concerned about getting my just due, about how I wasn't getting the money like the youngsters coming up. But at the end of the day, my name is good. I've been through a lot, and I know God shows up right on time. I'm having a good time. I'm not worrying about the contracts or the money or anything like that. I'm going back to what it was like when I was younger, when I was running because it's what I like to do. It's working for me. I have a totally different frame of mind now."
"You can't control things" like other runners' relay handoffs, Williams says. "That's why you have to find your niche, find what you're doing it for. If you're having fun, the other stuff won't matter."
"When I talk to kids, I talk about the struggles. They only see the glory and the medals. I have to break it down for them: sure, I've done all that, but look what I went through in the middle."
Looking towards Valencia
Williams, who already has two silver medals from the World Indoor Championships, refuses to make predictions for Valencia.
"Of course, you can't settle," she says, "but it's all about who's the best on that day. Everybody that I line up with has something; we're all good, we all have gifts. I'll take the experience that I have, and try to make something of it. If I'm supposed to win, I'll win. I have my confidence back, and I have my swagger back. I'm going to go and have some fun."
Parker Morse for the IAAF