Lauryn Williams always liked to go fast. When she was a kid, she beat her German shepherd on a dash home from school. When she was a professional track star she beat the best sprinters in the world.
Williams finished the fastest run of her life Wednesday – an improbable, nervy run—and it got her a silver medal. She wore spikes on her feet, but she was running on ice, her head encased in a helmet, her skin protected by a burn-proof skinsuit. She reached speeds that would be illegal on an interstate.
For this Olympic run, her fourth, Williams was a bobsledder. She made herself into a brakeman in six months, then made history by becoming only the fifth athlete to win a medal in both the Summer and Winter Games.
Miami’s Williams, a newcomer in an esoteric sport, transformed herself from subtropical sprinter to sub-zero pusher. Her amazingly rapid adaptation carried her to within one tenth of a second of a gold medal.
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“It’s been an unbelievable ride and I still can’t believe I’m here,” Williams said at the Sanki Sliding Center, grinning broadly, grasping an American flag and wearing a blue knit cap with a red pom-pom on top. It was odd to see her shivering in a parka rather than sweating in high-cut running briefs.
She belied no disappointment in the second-place finish of the USA-1 sled, driven by Elana Meyers. Probably because the thrill of being on another Olympic podium was sincere. The duo held a lead through three of four runs, but several brushes of the wall and a short sideways skid off one of the 17 curves on their last trip down the one-mile course enabled defending gold medalists Kaillie Humphries and Heather Moyse of Canada to overtake them.
Williams is very familiar with fractions of seconds. She won and lost plenty of photo finishes during her illustrious track career, including a controversial one won by Jamaica’s Veronica Campbell.
USA-1’s record-setting start times were the quickest of the field, mostly due to the explosive power of Williams, who learned to push a 400-pound sled down a slick slope, then jump in, curl up and hold on for dear life through banked turns, jet-like G forces and top speeds of 90 mph. No wonder they call the drivers “pilots.” At the venue, vintage film clips of bobsledding at the 1924 Games were played on big screens, so the crowd could see how it has evolved from a toboggan ride something akin to Formula I on ice.
“I was not hitting the line I wanted to drive,” Meyers said of her final run. “Curve 2 bit us. Anytime you come that close and you can taste it, if you don’t get the result, it hurts a little bit.”
Williams, who won a silver medal in the 100 meters at the 2004 Athens Olympics and gold as a semifinal runner for the U.S. 400-meter relay team at the 2012 London Games, hugged Meyers as soon as they climbed out of their BMW-designed sled, and both were mobbed by four teammates. USA-2 took the bronze medal, and USA-3, driven by Jazmine Fenlator and pushed by Lolo Jones, was 11th. Jones, a hurdler who barely missed winning a medal at the 2008 and 2012 Games, talked Williams into trying bobsled when they chatted at the Rome airport on their way to a track meet last summer.
“She’s like a Jesse Owens,” Jones gushed of Williams. “I hope she just inspired a whole country. When I get home I hope she’s a household name.”
Williams, 30, was exhilarated by mastering the sport despite a violent maiden run she compared to rolling down the side of a mountain in a washing machine. She was initially so sheepish about the idea she didn’t even tell her longtime coach, the University of Miami’s Amy Deem, that she finished third in the U.S. Push Championships in July. After she decided to stick with it, she bought battery-heated boots to cope with winter weather.
As she stood beside the refrigerated track, Williams pondered whether her odyssey to Russia was worth it. She has been living in a subculture most Americans are unaware of. Dark mornings, frigid nights. The daily chore of lifting sleds in and out of trucks and rubbing steel runners with sandpaper.
Williams, accustomed to shoe contracts and appearance fees during her track career, sold T-shirts and solicited donations to pay her bobsledding bills. After years of competing in packed European stadiums, she joined a circuit devoid of glamour.
“Bobsledding is a small world of small towns, small hotels and small egos,” U.S. assistant coach Stu McMillan said. “Most of these athletes failed at their first sport so they have a lot of humility and a huge work ethic.”
Meyer, a former softball player, has worked at a burrito joint and as a substitute teacher to make ends meet. Driver Jamie Greubel has been a waitress and dog walker.
In long, cramped drives through German and Austrian mountains, at shared meals at budget diners in upstate New York, in exhausting weight room training sessions, Williams realized she wasn’t only learning a new sport, she was learning about herself. After years of focusing on her own lane, her own finish line, she became intertwined with her teammates, and wanted to repay their generosity in teaching her the intricacies of their passion.
They welcomed the 5-foot-3 Williams’ speed but had to compensate for her lack of weight. The ideal athlete in the gravity sport weighs 175. Williams weighs 152 after adding seven pounds. A 25-pound lead weight is placed under her seat in the sled, which means she and Meyers have to push a heavier load.
“The most surprising thing is the growth,” said Williams, who postponed her financial planning career. “I had no idea what being a team player meant. I learned by loving each one of these girls, and I grew up. Bobsledding is so family-like. In track it’s kill or be killed.”
Bobsledding rekindled the competitive fire that had burned out during her recent track seasons. At the start line on Tuesday and Wednesday, Williams was thrilled to feel pins and needles in her fingers and toes again. Her tank was refilled with adrenalin.
She and her teammates, who call themselves “The Wolfpack,” added a splash of color to the White Olympics, and Williams said she hoped she would inspire minority athletes to “broaden your horizons and do something different.”
As for her share of history, joining double-gold winner Eddie Eagan of the U.S. (boxing in 1920 and bobsledding in 1932), a Norwegian ski jumper and yachtsman and two speedskaters and cyclists from East Germany and Canada, Williams said making a Jeopardy list wasn’t a priority.
“I didn’t come here to make history,” Williams said. “I came here to help Team USA and push as hard as I could.”
Medals? Williams seemed genuinely stumped when asked about her medals.
“I think they’re at my mom’s house,” she said “I think I have the gold one at home. I know you don’t believe me, but it’s never about the medals. It’s about the journey.”