Susan Williams started planning out her life in 1996. And to hear her tell it, the whole process was rather boring. She went through the usual steps in deciding on a career: Seek advice, do a little deep thinking and make up your mind.

It was all very normal, really, except for the two careers from which she chose.

Astronaut or Olympian?

"Those are two things that everybody wants to do," said Williams, 35, who is originally from Springfield. "And I actually worked myself into a position where I got to pick one."

She will put her choice on display in August, when she competes in the triathlon at the Olympic Games in Athens. For Williams, the event will be a celebration of achieving a dream. But it also will serve as a reminder that she had to give up on another.

"That's a choice that anyone would want," said Cris Bartholomew, Susan's brother. "But it wasn't easy for her. I would say that she really struggled with it."

After all, Williams had balanced the two goals -- a trip to space vs. a trip to the medal stand -- as far back as high school. Then, she hoped to make the Olympics as a swimmer and, at 15, she set the junior national record for the 200-yard butterfly. She graduated from Lake Braddock High as valedictorian before accepting a full swimming scholarship to the University of Alabama.

When her swimming career sputtered out after college, Williams made sure her other dream would not do the same. She earned her undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering at Alabama and followed that with a master's degree from the University of Colorado.

"She'd talk all the time about wanting to go into space," said Donna Bartholomew, Susan's mother. "We believed her. She's so talented. She excels in everything she tries."

No surprise then, that just two years after competing in her first triathlon at the request of a few friends in Boulder, Colo., Williams emerged as one of the elite amateur triathletes in the United States in 1996. Less than 18 months after buying her first racing bike, Williams placed third overall in that year's USA Triathlon National Championships.

On the plane ride home to Colorado, she sat next to Tim Yount, now the executive director of USA Triathlon. "That was fun," Williams told him. "But now I've got to go home and get going on some real work."

"Or," Yount said, "you could just make this your real work."

One problem: Williams already had made serious headway toward becoming an astronaut. She had a job at Lockheed Martin Aerospace Corporation, where she had worked on a mission to Mars and helped create a Titan-4 launch vehicle.

"I was really torn," Williams said. "I had a great job that I'd worked hard for. But when I got back to the office, I just thought, 'I could be outside sweating and running.' Suddenly, plain-old work didn't look so appealing anymore. I promised myself I'd do anything to become an Olympian."

Friends and family, especially her husband, Tim, often had to remind Williams of that vow over the next seven years, when disappointing race results, a coaching change and pregnancy slowed her career.

Williams had expected to progress much more quickly. She would qualify for the Olympic Games in Sydney, she told friends, because she had never felt in better shape during her entire career.

But en route to the second Olympic qualifying race, Williams learned she was pregnant. Even though she knew she would not be able to compete in the Olympics, Williams ran the race anyway, battling morning sickness to a fifth-place finish.

When her daughter was born nine months later, Williams named her Sydney, in honor of the Olympics she missed.

"Obviously, we didn't plan the pregnancy," Williams said. "But it turned out to be a blessing. I was able to start this wonderful family. I knew I could make the Olympics down the road, even if it was a little bit harder."

Or a lot harder. Two years ago, Williams balked at the thought of leaving her husband and young daughter to train. "I pushed her out the door," Tim said. "I knew that if she didn't go for it, she would always regret it."

Williams spent most of the last year living and training in Boulder, about an hour away from her family's Littleton, Colo., home. She switched coaches and improved her running time in the 10-kilometer race by about two minutes.

When Williams qualified for the Olympics on June 13 in Bellingham, Wash., her entire family was there to see it.

"We all knew she'd qualify," Cris Bartholomew said. "We've known for a long time that Susan was going to do something special, whether in sports or in science. For a while, we just didn't know which one."

Susan Williams, originally from Springfield, celebrates Olympic berth with mother and brother after June 13 triathlon in Bellingham, Wash.Spin city: Susan Williams, left, and Barb Lindquist pound out the miles during biking stage of June 13 triathlon in Bellingham, Wash., in which Williams, 35, qualified for her first Olympics. Susan Williams crosses finish line with the third and final U.S. Olympic triathlon spot in hand.