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Williams takes on Olympic-caliber field

23 July 2008

By Dave Ungrady

Generally lost in the excitement that followed Asafa Powell's victorious return to competition at the Stockholm Super Grand Prix was the timely triumph of another superior 100-meter sprinter. American Olympian Lauryn Williams performed a feat that could fairly be considered grander than Powell beating fellow Jamaican Usain Bolt, the man who has succeeded him as the world-record holder in the event.

Williams' win in the women's 100 meters deserves notice for its sheer novelty. When it was mentioned during a phone interview Tuesday from London that a review of her 100-meter races since winning the outdoor world title in 2005 showed few victories, Williams laughed and said, "I haven't won any race in the last two years."

To be fair, she has won three times, at the Modesto Relays in May, in Daegu, Korea, in October 2007 and at the 2006 U.S. championships.

But since the 2005 world championships, Williams has mostly avoided the top podium position against large groupings of the top sprinters in the world at major international competitions.

That changed Tuesday with her 11.10-second win into a 1.3 mph headwind and against a field that included many runners expected to contend for a medal at the Beijing Olympics. Williams leaned ahead of second-place finisher Marshevet Hooker of the United States (11.13) and also beat U.S. Olympic trials champion Muna Lee (11.18) and Olympic trials runner-up Torri Edwards (11.25). The field also included Shelly-Ann Fraser (11.20) and Sharone Simpson (11.25), who finished second and third, respectively, at the Jamaican Olympic trials.

"It was very big," Williams said. "It was great for my confidence. I'm sure some people were wondering why I was celebrating like I won the Olympics."

Williams is scheduled to run against another Olympic-caliber field in the 100 meters at the London Super Grand Prix on July 25. The start list includes Simpson, Fraser, Edwards, American 200-meter world champion Allyson Felix, 100-meter world champion Veronica Campbell-Brown and Jamaican Olympic trials champion Kerron Stewart.

American Tyson Gay, the world and U.S. Olympic trials champion in the 100 meters, withdrew from the race on Wednesday. He was to run against Powell, who beat Bolt in Stockholm on Tuesday. It was to be Gay's first race since injuring a hamstring in a 200-meter preliminary race at the U.S. trials on July 5.

"With the first round of the Olympic 100 meters just three weeks away, I don't want to risk doing anything to set things back," he said.

Doctors on Wednesday assessed Monday's MRI, which showed a mild strain in the semi-tendinosus muscle, and said it was healing well.

"The decision does not affect Gay's plans for Beijing, by which time he is expected to be fully recovered," Gay's agent Mark Wetmore said.

Other top athletes scheduled to compete in London include 1,500- and 5,000-meter world champion Barnard Lagat, who will attempt to win both races in Beijing -- in the mile against Shedrack Korir of Kenya, ranked sixth in the world in the event, and Olympian Alan Webb of the United States. Joining Lagat in London will be world-record holder Dayron Robles of Cuba and U.S. trials champion David Oliver in the 110-meter hurdles; Bolt and world championships bronze-medalist Wallace Spearmon, Jr. of the United States in the 200 meters; 10,000-meter Olympic-champion Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia in the 5,000 meters; world champion Brad Walker of the United States in the pole vault; and world champion Irving Saladino of Panama in the long jump.

The women's field includes Felix in the 200; world champion Christine Ohuruogu of Great Britain in the 400; Olympic- and world-champion and world-record holder Yelena Isinbayeva of Russia in the pole vault; American Olympic trials champion Lolo Jones in the 100-meter hurdles; and Beijing-bound American Erin Donohue in the 1,500.

In her last competition before the Olympics, Williams hopes to win her second major race in succession in the 100 meters in London. That would be quite a surprise even to her. She has been known to save her best efforts for the finals of championship competitions. At the 2007 world championships, Williams lost the title to Campbell-Brown by .003 seconds after rounding herself into competitive shape in the preliminary rounds.

Her 2007 season up to that point had yielded the poorest performances of her professional career, including a last place finish at a meet in Lausanne, Switzerland. Soon after that race, Williams wrote in her WCSN.com blog that it was the only time she remembered finishing last in a race. She entered the world championships ranked 38th in the world.

This year, she enters the Beijing Olympics ranked seventh in the world, behind world No. 1 Edwards, followed by Stewart of Jamaica, Lee, Fraser, Simpson and Campbell-Brown.

Williams credits a high level of fitness boosted by a new diet for her better-than-expected performances this year. At the prompting of her coach Amy Deem, Williams has greatly reduced her intake of sweets and fried foods; she often eats a protein bar before practice.

A stubborn Williams started the program reluctantly 10 weeks before the Olympic trials. "I'm a hard believer in anything," she said. "But now I feel great. I wake up feeling better. I was napping a lot during the day, with soreness in my body. My recovery from races takes a lot less time now. And I can look at myself and tell I'm a lot leaner."

And faster. In 2006 and 2007, Williams did not run one 100-meter race below 11 seconds. This season, she's done it twice in legal wind conditions. The last time she ran below 11 seconds before a world or Olympic championships was in 2005, when she won global gold and when she set her personal-best 10.88.

Still, her departure from the recent norm has Williams a bit perplexed. "I'm used to coming up short and everything coming into place at the big one," she said. "Everything's gone the same way year in and year out, not doing well in the circuit and peaking at the big races. Now I'm in great shape. Do I break the world record in the Olympics? Do I win the gold medal? But I'm very happy with things right now. I'm telling myself if I'm out here winning the circuit and I'll be able to pull it all together. It feels good to be ahead of the pack right now."

A position she hopes will continue in London and Beijing.

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