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Sports Outdoors and Recreation

Gymnast Toni-Ann Williams' career is on the upswing

Toni-Ann Williams, her hands and legs covered in chalk, stands still in the far left corner of the gym amid the buzz of children talking and coaches instructing at United Gymnastix in Reisterstown. She jumps to grab the higher of the uneven bars and in a second, she dangles from it, quickly maneuvers herself using her arms to balance her body upside down, before flipping off and landing on a mat.

"Not my favorite at all," Williams said of the bars, laughing.

Last month, the Roland Park Country School senior completed more complex routines in a far more high-pressure setting, competing for Jamaica in the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Antwerp, Belgium. She placed 45th overall out of 134 women, including 38th on the vault and 37th on floor exercise, in her second appearance at the world championships.

The Baltimore-born Williams, who has dual citizenship because both her parents are from Kingston, is the first female gymnast to represent Jamaica in international competition.

"It's amazing. I have always … been aware of my heritage of Jamaica, but now recently I've been more connected and I feel like I can actually contribute and do something for my country," she said.

Williams is a Level 10 gymnast in the U.S. Junior Olympic program, the highest level, and has a full athletic scholarship to California. She practices Mondays through Saturdays, spending 26 hours a week in the gym.

Every hour she's there, so is her mother.

"I am here with her 24/7," Marlene Hylton-Williams said. "To see her success now really, really means a lot to me."

Toni-Ann's parents knew from an early age that their daughter had athletic inclinations.

When she was 18 months old and on the pediatrician's table, "she would flip off the table," her mother said. And "she could flip headways," her father, Tony Williams, said.

A few years later, Toni-Ann attended a birthday party at United Gymnastix, and a man working the event asked her mother where the child practiced gymnastics. After her mother informed him that the child wasn't involved with the sport, he recommended signing her up.

United Gymnastix allowed Toni-Ann to do a tryout class, and five minutes into her first session, Mladen Stefanov, who competed in the 2000 Sydney Olympics for Bulgaria and now owns United Gymnastix, stopped the session, walked over to the women's coach and said the child didn't belong with his group because she was too advanced.

"She was a particularly physically gifted child," said Kari Barnes, who has spent the past 14 years as a coach at United Gymnastix, and first met Williams when the young gymnast was 7.

Williams quickly developed a connection with the sport.

When asked what gymnastics has given her, Williams said: "I think, just the discipline that it's taught me. And also, I love the opportunities that I've had because of this sport."

Stefanov sees the discipline in Williams when she practices and performs, which is uncharacteristic of younger athletes.

"She has basically complete control of her body," said Stefanov, her coach of seven years. "I think the ability to focus on dealing with the pressure makes the big difference for her."

Williams' success has not come without a physical price. She tore her right calf muscle, ripped off half of one of her toes on her left foot and has endured multiple ankle injuries.

Then there was a painful experience in Tokyo in 2011, at her first world championships.

"In the bar competition, I went to catch the bar. … I slipped off and my hand just ripped. … Blood was everywhere," Williams said.

Much of the skin from her right palm was gone.

Unable to finish her routine, she did not advance. But in the face of hardship on a grand stage, she chose to finish out her other events, participating in the beam and floor competitions.

Said Stefanov: "I've never seen such a … such a tear on the hand. I think it's quite, quite amazing that she was able … to pull it off."

This year's world championships went more smoothly.

"I felt like I was more determined this time and more focused and actually knew what I was doing and what was going on," she said.

Next up for Williams is Christmas on the Chesapeake on Dec. 13-15 at the Baltimore Convention Center. Her next international competition will be this summer at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games.

She wants "to keep working hard" and continue on the path that got her to where she is today, never settling on talent alone.

Williams is "a fantastic athlete," Barnes said. "But she's always worked like she wasn't."

jphogan@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jphogan9

Christmas on the Chesapeake

Where: Baltimore Convention Center

When: Dec. 13-15

More information: mdgymnasticsparents.com/cotcmeet, marylandgymnastics@gmail.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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