Gymnast Toni-Ann Williams' career is on the upswing
By JIM HOGAN and The Baltimore Sun
Dec 07, 2013 | 8:44 PM
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."