‘A Rollercoaster Ride Multiplied By 10’
How three-time Olympic sprinter Lauryn Williams wound up on Team USA’s Sochi-bound bobsled team.
Illustration by Jordan Merchant
Lauryn Williams peered down at the bobsled track, her heart pounding. Two experienced racers had just wiped out during a training run in Lake Placid, N.Y., and now it was her turn for her first run. What had she gotten herself into? She ran the way she always did, her muscular legs churning as she pushed the 400-pound sled. After 30 meters, the world-class sprinter jumped aboard.
As the sled rattled and banged against the curves, Williams swore and then prayed and then swore again. Hurtling down the track at 74 mph, panicked that she was falling out, she tried bargaining with a higher power. God, if you promise to get me down without wrecking, I promise never to do this again.
Fifty-eight seconds later, she and the driver arrived, each in one piece, at the bottom of the track. Instead of walking away from the sport after that Oct. 2 run, the native of Rochester, Beaver County, did it again. A week later, she placed third at a national championship and — just weeks after taking up the sport — went on to make the U.S. National Women’s Bobsled Team.
Williams, a three-time Olympian and silver medalist in the 100-meter dash, is still figuring out what life will look like after her 2013 retirement from track and field. Before she transitions to the business world, possibly as a financial consultant, she wants to add one more trip to the Olympics to her resume.
She is among a group of track stars, including hurdler Lolo Jones, expected to compete on the U.S. Olympic bobsled team this month at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. At press time, the Olympic team had not been selected; the announcement was scheduled for Jan. 19. But Williams is considered to be a strong prospect for the Sochi games, particularly after a strong World Cup showing in December, during which she and driver Jazmine Fenlator tied with Jones’ team for silver medals in a U.S. sweep.
Jones recruited Williams to bobsledding, telling Williams she had an ideal build for the winter sport. At 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighing 150 pounds, Williams is small for a bobsledder; most female competitors weigh about 170 pounds. But she is mighty for her size and capable of lifting 365 pounds, a plus for pushing the sled.
“People call it my quarter-life crisis,” the 30-year-old says with a laugh. “It is like a rollercoaster ride multiplied by 10 — and then take the seatbelt out. That is bobsledding.”
Her mother, Donna Williams, says she hasn’t seen her daughter so happy in years. Lauryn’s track career had its ups and downs, but with bobsledding, no one expects miracles from her. “She is having fun,” says her mother. “Her text messages are happy. Her Facebook posts are happy. Her childhood silliness is back. She is the kid I remember her being.”
That kid was fun-loving and lightning-fast, always outrunning the boys. One day, Donna heard a commotion outside the house. “Lauryn was faster than the dogs,” the kids yelled. Realizing this was more than typical tomboy talent, Donna made some calls and found a coach at a track club.
“Little girl, run as fast as you can,” the coach told Williams when they met at the track. The 9-year-old sprinted, and he stared at his stopwatch. “Little girl, you could go to the Olympics some day.”
Williams, the fifth of eight children, started running competitively. She also was a standout in basketball until the eighth grade, when she broke her wrist after running so fast she hit a wall.
Her father David would take her to the Carnegie Science Center, where she would forgo most of the exhibits to run alongside a sprinting hologram of Olympic gold medalist Florence Joyner Griffith. As little Lauryn nipped at Flo-Jo’s virtual heels, a crowd of adults gathered to cheer her on, and the 11-year-old finally beat the champion. Now it is Williams’ hologram that kids chase at the Highmark SportsWorks exhibit.
At Rochester High School, fellow sprinter Devan Parise says her friend’s form wasn’t textbook perfect. But she flew down the track with a quick turnover of her legs. “Save your money. I am going to the Olympics,” Parise recalls Williams saying.
And she did. The then-20-year-old University of Miami star was a darling of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. The storyline of the daughter and her father, sick then with leukemia, resonated with the public. Thanks to a $10,000 donation from Sewickley Heights businessman Tim Wiebe, David traveled to Athens, got dialysis at a Greek hospital and cheered in the stands as his daughter won a silver medal.
Williams was a breakout star with a dazzling smile. But she ended the Olympics in tears after a botched baton handoff with Marion Jones during the anchor leg of the 4x100 relay. She says the disqualification made her feel as though she had let down her team, her family, her country. “It was a hard thing to carry,” she says, “but you get back out there and try harder.”
That work paid off. In 2005, she was the fastest woman in the world, running the 100-meter dash in 10.93 seconds at the World Championships. She entered the 2008 Olympics feeling confident and fit but placed fourth in the 100 after a sweep by the Jamaican team. Then in the 4x100 relay, it happened again — another botched handoff, this time with the baton falling to the ground. “I totally felt jinxed,” says Williams. “Could this be any worse?”
When a reporter asked her why the U.S. sprinters had foundered, Williams answered, “Maybe someone put a pin in a voodoo doll.” She says the reporter misquoted her as saying that the Jamaicans had actually done so. The backlash was immediate. “I hope your dog dies,” one person wrote to her in an email. “You don’t deserve to live,” another wrote. To her horror, the vitriol went viral.
Back home, Donna accompanied her daughter to a Miami Dolphins football game, where they bought refreshments. The vendor handed the Olympian a hot dog and said, “Don’t drop it like you did the baton.” Donna says she told the man off, but her daughter said nothing. “[Williams] has been the consummate sports person no matter what happened,” her mother says.
A few months later, Williams’ father died. When she returned to the track, it was as though she were on autopilot. “It hit me — I had not only lost the race but also my dad. I was going through the motions.” So in 2010, she announced she was taking time off. Don’t do it, everyone said. Legendary track star Evelyn Ashford told her that an elite runner could never come back after a long break. Williams ignored everyone.
Instead, she threw herself into adventures, skydiving, skiing. She also went through a list of prominent contacts she had met during her international travels and asked them how they’d succeeded. “I wanted to see how other people ticked and how they got where they are,” she says. She was researching the unsettling prospect of a life without track.
Her friends and family worried that she was losing her focus. They staged an intervention in her Miami apartment, telling her, “You can still be the Lauryn Williams who is taking over the world.” They gave a PowerPoint presentation with bar graphs comparing other sprinters’ times to her slowing times. Williams cried and thanked them for caring so much. Then she laced up her shoes and returned to the track for the 2011 season.
Any hopes of picking up where she left off were dashed. Lesser sprinters were blowing by the great Lauryn Williams. Ashford had been right. “I was going to take over the world again, but the reality was that your body doesn’t hold up the same way,” says Williams. “It was a rude awakening.” She had trouble keeping the weight off her short frame and had to power through hamstring and ankle injuries to make the 2012 Olympics in London as part of the 4x100 relay team. She finally received her gold medal in the event — but it was bittersweet. She ran in the preliminaries but not the finals.
Even so, she has no regrets about taking time off. “It’s my story, my life,” she says. “The ups aren’t exciting without the downturns.” Williams, who majored in finance at Miami, completed an online M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix with the intention of becoming a financial consultant to Olympians. She knows too well the financial pressures of being an elite athlete. “Everyone thinks they are rich,” she says. “The majority of Olympians are broke.”
Then Williams read in a newspaper about Lolo Jones, who like her had competed in the 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics, and other one-time track stars trying out for bobsledding. She felt wistful. “That sounds like fun,” she thought. “I wish I would have tried that.” She asked Jones about the winter sport after running into the fellow Olympian at a track last year. When Jones told her she should try it herself, Williams took her up on it. Then she discovered that getting funding for bobsledding is harder than it was for the marquee sport of track and field. Before Williams made the team, she spent $10,000 of her own money, paying for one-way flights to training sessions around the world and renting ice time for about $200 an hour.
Now that she is on the team, her expenses are covered, and she recently landed a sponsorship from UHealth Sports Medicine, part of the University of Miami health system. “Bobsledding is hard on the back,” she says. The sponsorship pays for a physical therapist to travel with her, and she is adjusting to the physical rigors of bobsledding, which has different demands than track and field.
As a “brakeman” on a two-person sled, she pushes and rides in the back as the driver steers on a winding course. “I do the running part well,” she says. “I have to make sure I ride well. You should be able to anticipate if the sled is turning left. You have to go with the flow.”
The hard part, she says, is to stay relaxed while flying down the track at 80 to 90 mph. Yoga and daily stretching help her to build the flexibility she needs to lean her upper body toward her knees. But she also has to be alert enough to apply the brakes on the bottom of the track. “I don’t want to be a driver,” she says with a laugh.
Watch: Inside the Sled
One of the most physically challenging parts of bobsledding is lugging a 400-pound sled in frigid weather. “It is very exhausting — taking the sled off the truck, moving the sled to the ice, going down the track,” she says. “Then you put the sled on the truck at the bottom, and you do it all again.”
Her athleticism and attitude have made her successful in this venture, says Mike Dionne, the assistant coach of the women’s bobsledding team.
“She’s a world-class athlete and was extremely successful in track and field at the highest level, so it made her learning curve a lot less than most. Bobsledders have to be strong, fast and powerful, and she already had those qualities coming into the sport,” he says. “Her attitude is so positive and upbeat, and we are really impressed with her ability to be a team player. She has the attitude that it’s not about Lauryn — it’s about the team, and she makes everybody aware of that all of the time. It’s really refreshing.”
As she has chalked up more successes, Williams has gotten over the initial abject terror of hurtling down the course. “It’s an adrenaline rush, but it is still nerve-wracking,” she says. “Wrecking is a real part of the sport. My goal is to make it through the season without wrecking.”
Williams sometimes wonders what her father would think of her second athletic career. She says she thinks of him all the time. “He would be excited about me doing something new, but I don’t think he would be excited about the danger of bobsledding,” she says.
But this is Lauryn Williams’ journey, one she hopes will put her in the rare company of a small group of Olympians. “I am trying to do something not many people have done, going to both the Winter and Summer games,” she says. “Not many women have done that, and to top that off, not many black women. I am trying to create something cool. I am delighting in the process.”