ATHENS, Aug. 21 -- Moments after the women's Olympic 100-meter final Saturday night, U.S. sprinter Lauryn Williams looked up at the giant scoreboard at Athens Olympic Stadium and saw an inspiring image, captured on camera: her cancer-stricken father, a day removed from difficult dialysis treatments, leaping up and down in the stands.
And that was just the beginning of the good news up in lights.
Yuliya Nesterenko ends two decades of American dominance in the 100 meters with a closing surge to catch Lauryn Williams.
(Kai Pfaffenbach - Reuters)
Williams put her hands on her knees to catch her breath as she awaited the results, staring intently at the scoreboard. When the final numbers rolled down the screen, providing confirmation that she had just run the best race of her 20 years, Williams launched herself skyward and screamed.
Williams claimed a silver medal in her first Olympics, finishing second in 10.96 seconds to Belarussian Yuliya Nesterenko, who crossed the finish line just .03 of a second ahead. Jamaica's Veronica Campbell finished in third place in 10.97.
"It feels great -- I'm a silver medalist!" Williams exclaimed to reporters soon after her race. "My stomach was doing more cartwheels and back flips and everything. I was just hoping for second place. I really tried to run my heart out."
In the pole vault qualifying, 2000 Olympic champion Stacy Dragila had all the heart but none of the good fortune. Dragila had one of the worst performances of her career as she improbably failed to advance to the final in one of the most stunning upsets of the Summer Games so far.
Over the past two years, Dragila had lost her position as the premier practitioner of her sport, but she held the indoor world record as recently as last year and was still considered a gold medal favorite.
Saturday night, however, she looked lost. She missed three attempts at 14 feet 5 1/4 inches, and wound up 19th overall. The top 12 women moved on to the final.
It wasn't close on her final attempt. Dragila, who cleared 15-10 earlier this season, came up short on her jump and plowed into the bar. She looked dazed as she picked herself off the mat. She walked immediately over to her bag and started packing up her gear.
On her previous attempt, she didn't even complete the jump.
Her struggles, which she blamed in part on sparse training caused by Achilles' tendon problems, left her sobbing.
"It wasn't me," Dragila, 33, said. "This is something I should be able to do in my sleep. [The height] is what I usually [start out attempting] at a local meet."
Dragila, who set eight world records in 2001, said she developed the heel problems while competing at the July Olympic trials in new shoes. She chided herself for making the switch. The pain, she said, prevented her from preparing as usual leading up to this event.
"I didn't make it," she said. "It pretty much [stinks]."
If Dragila's elimination was a stunning surprise, the rise of Nesterenko in sprinting this year might equal it. Nesterenko has so little history that she is not listed in the sport's governing body's directory. A member of her nation's 4x100 team at last year's world championships in Paris, her best time in the 100 last year was 11.45 seconds, more than half a second slower than she ran here.
Her times have dropped like bad stock since.
She won three races this summer in 11.32, 11.13 and 11.06 seconds. Here, she has run under 11 seconds in every race.
"I had never heard of her until this weekend," said Williams, a University of Miami junior.
"For six months I have been training hard," Nesterenko, 25, said through an interpreter. "I did not just arrive from nowhere."
Nesterenko, who won the bronze medal in the 60 meters at the world indoor championships in Budapest this year, said she was able to succeed for several reasons: She and her husband -- quarter-miler Dimitriy Nesterenko -- moved out of her parents' house and into their own apartment, giving them more space. Her coach changed her training methods, she said, and she began to focus on performing well at these Summer Games.
"I've been training the whole year, thinking about the Olympic Games, and it helped," she said. "We added a lot of new elements, a lot of weightlifting. [But] I cannot go into the details of my training."
Williams has been training in Coral Gables, Fla., under Hurricanes Coach Amy Deem, despite having turned professional after the Olympic trials. Her career, too, has soared this season, though her advancement was projected after she won a gold at the 2003 Pan American Games.
Williams finished third behind Torri Edwards and LaTasha Colander at the trials. Edwards later was banned for stimulant use and Colander finished dead last on Saturday in 11.18 seconds.
As Williams got in the blocks, she kept muttering to herself: "Run for your life, run for your life."
In the stands, her family -- four sisters, her mother, stepmother and father, David Williams -- watched together for the first time at these Games. David Williams, who suffers from leukemia, missed his daughter's first- and second-round races Friday. Lauryn Williams said he had problems with the dialysis he requires for kidney problems that resulted from years of cancer treatment.
Because he cannot work and lives on disability checks, he relied on a $10,000 donation to fly to the Games.
"Just to see him jumping up and down and full of life was very exciting," Williams said.
It was a night in which excitement came in abundance.
This "has been very stupendous and fantastic," Lauryn Williams said. "It's been better than I imagined."