Lauryn Williams didn't love track. She didn't idolize any athletes, let alone Olympians. But when Williams came across an exhibit at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh that challenged passers-by to sprint down a 10-meter track against the flashing silhouette of an elite sprinter -- she recalls it was the late Florence Griffith-Joyner -- Williams, then about 10 years old, got in line.
From late morning until late afternoon, Williams, now 20, tried to beat the blinking lights. Her father, David Williams, recalled that she at first delighted other patrons with her determination and finally awed them with her speed. Father and daughter swear to this fact: The tiny girl with churning legs eventually outran the mechanical athlete.
Long before she began running competitively in high school and at the University of Miami, Lauryn Williams, 20, envisioned becoming an anesthesiologist.
(Joshua Prezant For The Washington Post)
The feat was the object of so much amusement and amazement, Lauryn Williams and her father said in independent conversations, the other attendees eventually broke the line for Williams so she could keep running and running.
And right about then was when Lauryn Williams fell in love. With winning.
Now one of the fastest women in the United States and a medal contender in the 100 meters in Athens, Lauryn Williams remains far more interested chasing goals she can see rather than those she can imagine. Entering her senior year at the University of Miami, Williams was never prone to daydreaming about sports; when she was 4 or 5, she envisioned becoming not a star athlete, but an anesthesiologist. Someone in her family was one of those, she had noted, and he made a lot of money.
That seemed like a good thing to a young girl splitting her time between humble households in Detroit and just outside of Pittsburgh, working nights at the local Wendy's even on days she had traveled hours in the car from track meets.
"I was just being competitive at anything," said Williams, who turned professional in July, days after the Olympic trials. "I wanted to be the best at everything."
Williams spent part of each year with her mother, Donna Williams, an eighth-grade teacher in Detroit's public school system, and part in Pennsylvania with her father, who has battled leukemia for 13 years. Cancer treatments, he said, led to kidney problems; now David Williams, a Vietnam veteran, is on dialysis awaiting a kidney transplant. A former district manager for General Motors, he hasn't held a job in years.
"It's exhausted all of my finances," said David Williams, a minister. "[But] I'm as active as well as one could be. . . . I got her all over the country for her various meets. . . . Lauryn has just been an inspiration to all of us. A breath of fresh air in troubled times."
Lauryn Williams, who attended Rochester High in Pittsburgh, recalled weekends her father would pick her up after chemotherapy or radiation treatments then drive for hours so she could attend meets. Though aware of his problems, she said, she never felt the full weight of them.
"He never let it get him down," said Lauryn, who has two brothers and five sisters. "He always kept the burden on himself. It was definitely sad on his bad days, but he was always a positive person. He kept going."
At the moment, he is trying to find a way to go to Athens, which he cannot afford on his disability paychecks. He has opened a "Williams Family Greece Fund" with a local bank. Similarly, a radio station in Detroit began a fundraising campaign so Donna Williams could go.
Unlike her daughter, Donna Williams never competed in sports. She found her daughter's exploits hilarious, particularly when Lauryn Williams arrived home from softball practice and declared all of the other girls "chickens." Through the years, she tried karate, ballroom dancing, softball, basketball and gymnastics. But as a preteen, she was always looking for a race.
"She beat all the girls in the neighborhood, then she beat all the boys," Donna Williams said. "Then she proceeded to beat all of the teenage boys."
Lauryn Williams eventually beat even the family German shepherd, Ben, a large animal she chased around the yard until she succeeded in wearing him down. A day after that victory, Donna Williams said, she put her daughter in the back of the car and drove her to a Police Athletic League track and field camp.
There, Williams was instructed to sprint around a standard track oval. When she was finished, the camp superviser, holding a stopwatch, declared she had run the lap in a flash. To this day, when Lauryn calls her mother on her cell phone, she pops up as "Flash." On her mother's speed-dial at home, Lauryn is listed as "Flash."
Williams quickly attracted national attention, but Flash soon found a rival. As a sophomore in high school, she was invited to a prestigious national meet in California. At that meet, she faced Muna Lee, now 22 and a member of the U.S. Olympic team in the 200 meters, for the first time.
Neither Lee nor Lauryn Williams won the race, Williams recalls, but Lee defeated Williams.
And she kept beating her.
At national races year after year, Lee defeated Lauryn Williams. Williams swears she never won a single encounter with Lee until this April's Penn Relays in Philadelphia. There, Williams finally put a great race together. She finished first in the 100 in 11.15 seconds; Lee, a senior at LSU, was third in 11.30.
"That was kind of her breakout meet," University of Miami women's track coach Amy Deem said, "when she really took off."
The Olympics did not interest Lauryn Williams before she figured out she was good enough to go, and that realization came not years ago, but mere weeks: after winning the NCAA title in the 100 in June in 10.97 seconds -- second best in the world at the time. The victory capped a perfect (9-0) season in the 100 for Williams, a year after she claimed a gold medal at the 2003 Pan American Games in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
"Once I realized I was good, it fed into my passion," Lauryn Williams said. "It's still developing."
At the July Olympic trials in Sacramento, Williams faced two legends in the 100 final: Marion Jones and Gail Devers. Also in the field: world champion Torri Edwards. Even so, given her world-class time entering the meet, Lauryn Williams, virtually unknown a year ago, was considered a favorite.
Until she tripped coming out of the blocks. Her mother, father and about a dozen other family and friends gasped.
"I was on the opposite side of the stadium," Donna Williams said. "Everybody else was like up and running and my baby was still in the blocks. . . . [I thought] 'Oh my God, she's in last place. How will she ever recover?' "
Williams chased down all but LaTasha Colander, who finished first, and Edwards, who claimed second, with a burst of late speed that might be unmatched among the world's elite women. At first, Williams had no idea she had finished in the top three, thereby claiming an Olympic team spot. She assumed she had finished fifth or sixth.
When she saw her name on the scoreboard, she felt a mix of confusion and elation. Her mother was near hysterical; even her father was leaping for joy. Lauryn Williams saw the names of those who finished behind her: Devers, Jones . . . and Muna Lee.
She made the Olympic team.
She topped two legends.
And she beat Lee.
"I met her my sophomore year in high school and I had been chasing her ever since," Lauryn Williams said. "This year, it finally came to pass that I beat her. After I beat her, she didn't beat me anymore. Everybody was like, 'Oh, you beat Marion Jones . . .' I'm thinking, 'I beat Muna Lee. Everything else is a bonus.' "