Kovacevic: Williams smiles through another crusher
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — When Lauryn Williams' tale ultimately gets told, it'll be one of remarkable resilience, heavy heartbreak and even more remarkable resilience.
All shining through the brightest of smiles.
“It's never about the medals for me,” the little racer from Rochester, Beaver County, insisted late Wednesday night, somehow beaming just minutes after she and driver Elana Meyers settled for silver in Olympic women's bobsled at Sanki Sliding Center. She could have been only the second athlete to win gold in a Summer and Winter Games, but they were a tenth of a second shy, finishing all four heats in a combined 3 minutes, 50.71 seconds. Worse, the gold was about as firmly in their grasp as it gets until Canada's Kaillie Humphries and Heather Moyse stunningly grabbed it away on the final heat.
“I don't need medals to validate me,” Williams said. “To me, it's about the experience. It's about getting to know ‘E,' becoming her teammate, her friend. It's about all my bobsled teammates. It's about training together.”
She paused a bit, smile still intact.
“It's about the journey,” she said.
And man, take it from someone who has been there since the start: What a journey it has been.
I have no idea how she has done it. Any of it.
In her first Games, Athens 2004, she led the 100 meters, track's signature event, more than halfway through. Known as the world's premier finisher, she was a shoo-in. At least she was until Belarus' Yulia Nesterenko, a virtual unknown, stunningly passed her. Decisively.
Accusations swirled immediately, and small wonder: Nesterenko never had won a 100-meter race. Williams' late father, David, shouted from the stands, “Wait till she pees!” in reference to drug testing.
Nothing turned up, but Nesterenko never finished another race higher than sixth. It stinks to this day.
Same Olympics, 4x100 relay. The U.S. was loaded. A consolation gold for Williams seemed assured. But she started her leg too early and couldn't take the baton from a teammate. End of race.
I still can picture Williams, managing to answer all of our questions across the media rope while being held up by her teammates so she wouldn't collapse.
“I'll be back,” she said, smiling through tears.
I didn't believe it. No one would have believed it. Sprinters rarely come back, especially those that taste anguish like this.
Beijing 2008. The sequel was even worse. Another baton drop in the 4x100, this time between her and Torri Edwards.
“Maybe someone has a voodoo doll of me,” she said then. Still smiling, not as many tears.
London 2012. No way the U.S. would let Williams run another relay, right?
Wrong. The staff did, at least in the semifinal heat. An extraordinary quartet finished the job without her the next night, but she qualified for gold at last.
This could have been — no, should have been — the big one. This would be hers. This would mean history.
Through the USA-1 sled's first two heats Tuesday, it looked like the race might already be history. Meyers and Williams, thanks largely to Williams' track-record starts of 5.13 and 5.12, had a lead of 0.23 seconds over Canada-1's Humphries and Moyse. In the bobsled business — actually, in all of the sliding sports — that's considered commanding.
Bobsled times are simple: Add up all four heats, and that's your score. The path to winning is just as simple: Get the early lead. At these Games, no one in bobsled, luge or skeleton had blown a lead after the second heat.
But Meyers opened Wednesday by mishandling USA-1 on its first run — the third heat of the overall event — and Canada-1 dramatically slashed the lead to 0.11 seconds.
“I didn't have control of the sled, and it went up on the third curve,” Meyers said, smiling like Williams. “I gave it my best every second of the race.”
Meyers and Humphries are rated the top drivers in the sport, but Humphries “beat me on this night,” Meyers conceded.
That was true on the fourth and final heat, too, which ended with the top two sleds going at it head to head. Humphries drove a clean course, though it was Canada-1's slowest run of the event, and all Meyers and Williams needed was a 58.02 to take gold. That would have been their worst score of the event.
But this run was just as rickety, Meyers going high on curves and bouncing off walls, for a 58.13.
“I saw we were second right away,” Meyers said.
Williams didn't. The job of the brakeman after the initial push is, as she described it, “be loose and aerodynamic.” It's really not much more than duck the head and go unseen. But the job that was required was done exceptionally well: After her 5.13 and 5.12 starts Tuesday, she put down 5.12 and 5.18 Wednesday.
“I can't say enough,” Meyers said, her left arm around Williams, “about what she's been able to do.”
No kidding. Williams' first try at bobsled was five months ago. She and Meyers weren't paired until arriving here. It's an amazing achievement. Hardly the Greek tragedy of 10 years ago.
But like the others, so, so close to something so, so much more.
Maybe this is it. She's 30 now, and she already had dipped a toe into the workforce as a financial planner last summer before the sliders came calling. And to hear her after this race joke that she's only “33 percent sure” she would try bobsled again, it sure sounded like she won't.
“I just feel like after 10 years of professional sports, it's time for me to move on to something else, you know?” Williams said. “Waking up every day, going to the gym, running … if I'm not going to put my best foot forward, I'm not going to do it. I don't want to be mediocre.”
I'll save you the trouble: Brazil is in two years, Korea in four.