May 5, 2004
WITH THE U.S. Olympic trials about two months away, sprinter Bernard
Williams is no longer running from his past or struggling with his future.
"I'm 26 years old now," said Williams, a Baltimore native, after an early morning workout at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "I have a daughter. I have a family. I live in one place, train in one place and have reunited with my old coach. I read the Bible daily - started that about a month ago. I'm settled and more focused now than ever."
If that's indeed true, then it's good news for the U.S. Olympic team. When he's focused, Williams is as fast as Maurice Greene, Jon Drummond and Tim Montgomery. But when he isn't, then he is nothing more than another fast guy with potential, one of track and field's biggest enigmas.
No one is surprised when Williams runs away from a field or when he bombs. Often, he has been labeled immature, a runner with raw speed who lacks discipline. Since 2000, Williams seems to have changed coaches as often as he has changed shoes.
"There were too many times where I would let things on the outside influence me," said Williams, a graduate of Carver High. "I would let those things move me outside of the zone where I needed to be, then it would build up and I would end up falling. There are a lot of people out there waiting to see you fall.
"For years, I tried to accomplish everything by myself, but now I'm putting it in God's hands. I'm studying the word, applying those values to my life. If God wants me to obtain a certain status, I will. If it is meant to happen, it will. I can't concentrate on anyone else, I have to concentrate on me."
This sounds like a totally different Williams from the one we saw win a 2000 Olympic relay gold medal. That Williams was brash and cocky. After winning the race in Sydney, Australia, Williams and his teammates jogged around the track showboating and wrapped themselves in the American flag.
They flexed more than Hulk Hogan.
Despite being cheered on by some in attendance, they were later criticized for an ugly American celebration. Williams and his teammates eventually apologized, but his reputation was damaged.
The immaturity label has never left him.
Williams has always been a fun-loving person, quick with a witty comment and one-liners. He spends time speaking to church groups and going to orphanages. But on the day he won that medal, a kid from the rough side of West Baltimore was put on the international stage without much of a clue.
The Olympic celebration was somewhat excusable. Failure now isn't.
"Nah, that will never happen again," Williams said. "I offended a lot of people. I was having a good time, but I didn't control myself. Back then, no one told me anything about the rules or what was proper.
"I learned from that experience. I was humbled," said Williams. "A lot of things I once took for granted, I don't take for granted anymore. I've traveled pretty extensively now. I'm a lot wiser."
Wise enough to rehire Mike Holloway as his coach. Williams left Holloway soon after leaving Florida, joining the Los Angeles-based HSI group, where he trained with highly regarded John Smith. But about two years later, Williams left HSI, and since has had a smorgasbord of coaches, including John Tabor and former bronze medalist Dennis Mitchell. Last spring, Tony Ross coached him for a couple of months, followed by Williams training himself.
Bad idea. Williams had an unimpressive summer, at least by his own standards.
"They [HSI] tried to interfere with my personal business, but I had to go with my heart," said Williams. "They didn't want me to date Anjanette [Kirkland, a former world champion hurdler who also was affiliated with HSI]. I had kept in contact with Mike over the years and never burned any of my bridges. He knew that me going to HSI was strictly a business decision, nothing personal.
"But now we're back together again," said Williams. "He gives me that extra pair of eyes, because sometimes you can't see yourself, you can't define all the little flaws. He gives me a structured program and the discipline to enforce it."
So each morning when Williams goes to the weight room, Holloway is there. When Williams hits the track, Holloway is there. They talk and plan out meals. They keep trying to perfect Williams' start out of the blocks, where he often tends to come up too high.
One slight flaw could make the difference between going to Athens, Greece, later this summer or staying home and watching the Olympics on television. It could mean the difference between winning a gold, silver or bronze medal or no medal at all.
For Williams, the 2004 games are about respect. He doesn't get any. Quite frankly, he hasn't earned much yet. Despite the showing in Sydney and being the reigning U.S. 100-meter champion, no one ever asks Williams for an autograph.
He is recognized more for being an enigma than his achievements. After the last Summer Games, there were some who thought he was ready to become the world's fastest human.
It hasn't happened.
"If you don't win consistently, you are nonexistent and you don't have a voice," said Williams. "In our sport, they don't respect anybody until you win a gold medal individually. In a sense, I'm still trying to earn that top respect.
"Whatever happens, happens, but I'm confident and focused. There can be no question about that."
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