Even at 20, Lauryn Williams already has the poise of a veteran.
Small things. That's what you notice about Lauryn Williams, who is a small thing herself. This is the beginning for her, the moments before the sponsors take over and the men and women with the South Beach tans and snazzy suits start using words like marketability and retainer fees. She is generously listed at 5-foot-3 and weighs no more than 100 pounds, but one day she could be bigger than life. Two nights ago at Olympic Stadium, Williams won the silver medal in the 100-meter dash. It was her first Olympics and she ran her personal best. You get a medal in my book simply for that. The IOC also gave her a silver for running a 10.96.
This is the beginning, so you pay attention: She shakes the hands of strangers. She smiles on cue. She looks you in the eye when she speaks. On Sunday afternoon the USOC held a post-race news conference for her, which was attended by just a handful of reporters. She came off more seasoned than most 20-year-olds and made sure not to make any waves. At the trials, Williams finished a surprising third to knock out Gail Devers and Marion Jones, who have owned this event since Barcelona. Williams said Jones has been sending her text messages of encouragement all week. She said she wanted Jones as her teammate on the relay and would judge her only on what she saw in front of her and not one what she had read. The USOC moderator seemed happy with that answer.
Williams also retold the tug-at-your-heart story of her father, David, who was diagnosed with leukemia in 1989 (the cancer is in remission, though he undergoes periodic dialysis treatments). He was able to come to Athens, thanks to a $10,000 donation from a cancer survivor in his home state of Pennsylvania. The family still hasn't celebrated because Williams left the drug testing area at 2 a.m. following her win. She then returned to the village and went straight to bed.
When the news conference ended and the last of the cameras were shut off, Williams finally acted like a college senior. (She said her goal entering the year was to win the NCAAs, which she did as a member of the University of Miami. She has since turned pro.) Outside the interview room afterward, a U.S. Track and Field official told her ESPN wanted to talk to her. She responded by bounding down a hallway as energetically as she did in the 100. "ESPN! Hooking it up. ESPN! I'm hooking it up."
In the 100 final Williams hooked up with Belarussian Yuliya Nesterenko and nearly won the race. Only .03 separated the two runners. Not yet legal to drink (at least in the States) and now a silver medalist, Williams goes to the head of the class as the American sprint heir to Jones. The history was not lost on her. She mentioned that she was reading USA Today last Friday and saw the newspaper had put her image amid a pantheon of female gold-plated sprinters, including Wilma Rudolph, Wyomia Tyus, Evelyn Ashford, Florence Griffith Joyner, Devers and Jones.
"They had me in the middle with all of those stars," said Williams. "These people have a lot of faith in me and that's what drove me."
It's doubtful she was talking about USA Today's editors, but the point was made. She gets it, or at least can talk the talk. She's also savvy. With the subject of doping never far from any podium, Williams was given the opportunity to speculate on Nesterenko, who has emerged this year from seeming nowhere. She refused.
"My coach said she's run some good times and that's good enough for me," Williams said. "Looks like I lost fair and square."
The kid did add one last caveat.
"But I'll see that girl in Beijing," said Williams, smiling.
We'll certainly be seeing her.