Office flips over cartwheel-a-thon

The Baltimore Sun

Racine Williams stretched out her arms and began rotating like a pinwheel in slow motion.

With a rhythmic, tick-tock quality, the 41-year-old perfectly cartwheeled to the left, and back to the right across the conference room of her Millersville office.

Despite huffing and puffing through the last 50, she kept going until she reached a new personal record of 300.

Her third annual cartwheel-a-thon Friday raised only $1,100, a third of her first outing. But Williams still takes on this odd, seemingly dizzying challenge because it's a cause she works for daily.

Williams, a service coordinator at the nonprofit Coordinating Center, helps disabled nursing home patients return to their homes by arranging for care, home modifications and equipment. Health insurance or Medicaid doesn't meet some of those needs, so Williams and her co-workers raise money to pay for the rest.

"I coordinate services so they will be successful in the community," she said.

Williams started working for the center in January 2005. In addition to her job, she decided to volunteer on a committee that oversees the Family Resource Fund at work. At a meeting to discuss fundraising, her co-workers discussed what they could do to raise money.

"I said, 'I could do cartwheels,'" said Williams, who won a full scholarship to the University of Nebraska for her gymnastics prowess.

It has been a hit every year at the office, said Suzanne Keller, a social work supervisor and a facilitator for the fund. Her co-workers bring snacks and pom-poms, and turn the event into a party.

When she started three years ago, her co-workers and husband pledged $1 a cartwheel, assuming that she wouldn't make it past 50. They were surprised when she did 260 cartwheels. Donations reached $3,300.

When co-workers and friends decided the following year that they would make flat donations, Williams completed 275 and generated $1,500. This year it was $1,100, with $600 coming from her mother and husband, who kept their $1-a-cartwheel pledge.

This year's cartwheel-a-thon will bring the Family Resource Fund total to $9,600, said Sharyn King, director of care management at the center. The center spent about $3,000 more than it did last year to help its clients, she said. The center still is accepting donations.

Williams doesn't train for her contribution to the fund. Every time Williams' colleagues ask her to repeat her feat, she wavers, saying she's not in good enough shape.

"We don't believe her anymore," Keller said. "She's in great shape."

A few years - and two kids - ago, top universities sought Williams' athletic talents. She retains her muscular gymnast's physique.

At 5 feet 8 inches tall and 160 pounds, she is 20 pounds heavier than in her Nebraska days when she was the Amateur Athletic Union National Champion in 1984. She held the school's record for the uneven bars and helped her gymnastics team win the NCAA championship. Williams still views those days with wonder. So does her mother, Lillian Smith.

Smith was 42 when she had her daughter. She and her husband could barely keep up with the rough-and-tumble girl who ran, jumped and somersaulted so much that her mother insisted the 4-year-old take dance classes.

"I said, 'Give her something rough,'" Smith said.

Williams threw herself into dance, taking tap, jazz and ballet. It wasn't until she was 14 that a friend introduced her to gymnastics.

"I fell in love with it," she said.

Williams practiced at the former Royal T's gym in Crofton. She became the Maryland state champion in gymnastics in 1982. Williams and her family were shocked when they learned she could be eligible for athletic scholarships.

"I did gym for fun," she said. "I didn't know there were college teams."

Williams won a full scholarship to the University of Nebraska and earned a bachelor's degree in human development in 1989. She earned her master's degree in counseling at Bowie State University in 1992. She coached gymnastics for a while, but she stopped the rigorous workouts that powered her vaults and somersaults.

Now she works out three times a week at the gym. Her full-time job and caring for her children don't leave her much time for herself, said her husband, Allan Williams.

On Friday, Williams stood in front of more than 30 co-workers, dressed in black nylon shorts and a sparkly black leotard with "Huskers" - a nod to her Nebraska days - spelled out on the front in red sequins. With each 10 cartwheels, her audience cheered. Her son and husband took turns videotaping her. When she finished, her co-workers sang "For She's a Jolly Good Fellow."

Williams felt tired. She said she was looking forward to a hot bath at home.

"I won't be sore until tomorrow," Williams said.

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