Running onto the radar
Mississippi State's McWilliams is a hot new face on U.S. track scene
Posted: Friday May 21, 2004 12:40PM; Updated: Friday May 21, 2004 1:11PM
Worn down by calls from agents, some pitching promises of $1 million shoe deals, Al Schmidt set aside his cell phone for a spell earlier this week. This is the extra stuff that comes with coaching middle-distance runner Tiffany McWilliams, a rising star on the track and field scene.
It hasn't always been this way, of course. The Mississippi State junior was barely on the radar until she won the NCAA 1,500-meter title (in collegiate-record time) last spring and finished a strong third at the U.S. outdoor championships last June. Now McWilliams is widely considered a good bet to make the U.S. Olympic team and chase a medal, especially with mile queen Regina Jacobs' status up in the air after testing positive for THG.
So it's no surprise the agents turned up the heat after McWilliams cruised to conference records in both the 800 (2:01.00) and 1,500 (4:09.19) last weekend at the SEC Championships in Oxford, Miss. Both marks are the fastest by an American this season and her 1,500 time ranks as the year's world-leading time.
Schmidt cautions that McWilliams' times aren't an indication that she's peaked early, but rather that her training is on pace for later this summer when it will matter most.
McWilliams will probably have to decide if she's going to retain her college eligibility after the NCAA championships next month. The financial rewards of going pro could come in very handy in training for the Athens Olympics. Word is McWilliams could be looking at a shoe deal close to the reported $1.5 million Nike paid former prep phenomenon Alan Webb, who's yet to make a move on the international scene.
"She ought to be in that range,'' Schmidt said. "She's ready to make an impact. Right now, she can race with anybody in the world in either [the 800 or 1,500].''
Some knowledgeable track folks worry about the big money and Olympic possibilities coming too fast, though the 21-year-old McWilliams can't be faulted for her meteoric rise. She's come on like a blur out of Mississippi, not historically a running hotbed, to challenge Suzy Favor Hamilton as the top American miler.
McWilliams' performance at the SEC Championships left rival coaches hoping she'll be tempted to take the money and run.
"She has to be one of the favorites to win the Olympic trials,'' said Vanderbilt women's coach Jim Spivey, a three-time Olympian in the 1,500. "It reminds you of Mary Decker Slaney the way she runs to the front. In the heats it's almost like [former Kenyan distance runner] Henry Rono, where she runs 2:01 [in the 800] when she could have run 2:06 to qualify.
"She's just that good. She just runs.''
Tickets to Athens aren't punched in May or June, but the pleasantly humble McWilliams looms as a feel-good story for a sport that's had its eye badly blackened . McWilliams hails from the small northwest Alabama town of Red Bay where she graduated high school in a class of just 56 students. There she was a multi-sport athlete who ran track because it was also under the watch of her basketball coach, who recommended it for off-season conditioning.
McWilliams set state records in the small school classification, yet 5:09 for 1,600 meters didn't excite many big-time college programs. If more coaches had taken a closer look they would have found she clocked very good, though not eye-popping times, off raw talent and only casual training.
"We pretty much just showed up for meets,'' McWilliams recalled. "If we did have practice, [coach] was like, 'Run your event.' When I came to college I knew nothing about running. I didn't know what intervals were or how to properly warm up.''
Even as a college freshman McWilliams didn't burn up the track. She was promptly sidelined with a knee injury and resulting surgery suffered in basketball. She also missed more time when her wisdom teeth were extracted. By season's end she recovered for an eighth-place finish in the 1,500 at the SEC Championships. But no one saw a potential Olympian in her 4:55.04 clocking -- a whooping 46 seconds off what she ran last weekend.
Schmidt sensed the potential, but even he didn't realize the tremendous speed-endurance athlete under his tutelage until McWilliams started turning heads last year as a sophomore.
"It's her ability to run fast for a long time that is special,'' he said. "Where a lot of athletes might do five times 400 meters [in a workout], she does eight. She is able to extend her 800 [meter] pace work up to about four times the race distance. That is pretty unusual.
"She can recover so well. She is fast. She is tall [5-foot-9] with long legs. She has the whole package.''
Yet surely there's a weakness somewhere, right? After last season, suggestions that McWilliams might be a flash in the pan have been laughably dismissed. The only remaining knock is that she hasn't tasted international competition and, if she earns a trip to Athens, could be in for a rude awakening.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.