The last summer Olympic flame was extinguished four years ago in Sydney, Australia. But for many, the fire never dies. From the power and speed of track and field to the grace and precision of platform diving, a talented group of University of Miami student-athletes and alumni are vying to compete in the 2004 Olympic Games.
In geological time, 11 seconds wouldn’t even register on the clock. But in a sport where athletes measure time in hundredths of seconds, it can be an eternity.
University of Miami junior sprinter Lauryn Williams knows that fact all too well. Last summer at the Pan American Games, an important precursor to the Olympics, she blazed to victory in the 100-meter final, crossing the finish line in 11.12 seconds.
“All sprinters at this level have incredible speed,” says Williams, a finance major. “It’s technique that separates the best.”
So Williams compiles a mental checklist of do’s and don’ts that she covers before each race. Combined with an intense training schedule, that list has helped her become one of the fastest human beings in the world and one of the UM track team’s handful of Olympic hopefuls.
Just how good is she? “She has all of the physical tools,” says head women’s track coach Amy Deem. “She’s young, but what’s most impressive about her is her mental approach to the sport; she understands what it takes to be great.”
“If they are successful in the water, they’re going to be successful in the classroom because it’s the mindset they have.” -Mariusz Podkoscielny
UM Swimming Coach
Williams flashed signs of that greatness last year, when, as a sophomore, she not only captured gold at the Pan Am Games but also won the Big East title in the 100 meters and finished third in the event at the NCAA Outdoor Championships. And this May she became the first female runner to win three consecutive 100-meter titles at the Big East Outdoor Track and Field Championships. While competing in Athens would be “an experience like no other,” Williams says, she won’t buckle under the pressure of going up against the world’s best sprinters, such as Christie Gaines and 2000 Olympic champion Marion Jones. “I’ve got a year of international competition under my belt, so I’m really not in awe anymore of the stars of my sport. If I make the team, I’m going to be out there to compete. I recognize their abilities, and I cherish the things that I’ve learned from them and the knowledge they have shared with me. But they are my opponents just the same,” Williams says.
Williams is not alone in her Olympic quest. Joining her is teammate Charlette Greggs, a 400-meter sophomore runner from Miami whose tall, slender build is ideal for her specialty. Last year, Greggs ran a personal best of 51.65, the fourth-best time in the nation. But she knows she can get better. She’d like to run in the 50-second range for her event and then make the finals of the 400 Olympic Trials, which would secure her a place on the team.
“In Sydney, I was more mature. I made my first final, got fifth in the 200 and eight place in the 100. Athens could be my third, and my goal is to win it all. ” -Lauryn Williams UM Sprinter
Williams’s and Greggs’s pursuit of Olympic glory is one that UM volunteer track coach Debbie Ferguson has fulfilled twice. A four-time NCAA sprint champion and All-American at the University of Georgia from 1994 to 1999, Ferguson, 28, competed in the 1996 Atlanta Games and in the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia, where she won a gold medal as a member of The Bahamas 4×100-meter winning relay team. While Ferguson is assisting Deem in coaching UM’s staple of young sprinters, she also continues to concentrate on her own goals: making her third Olympic Games.
“When I competed in Atlanta, I was still in college, and honestly, I was just happy to be there. I was thinking more about autographs instead of thinking, ‘Okay, girl, you’ve qualified for the Olympics and you’re here to compete,'” Ferguson says. “But the second time around in Sydney, I was more mature. I got over the excitement of, ‘Oh, my God, there’s Gail Devers or that’s Marion Jones.’ I made my first final, got fifth in the 200 and eighth place in the 100. Athens could be my third, and my goal is to win it all.”
Ironically, Ferguson is helping Williams to become a better sprinter in the same discipline in which she also competes, the 100 meters. So come this summer at the Olympic Games in Athens, the two could conceivably line up side by side in the starting blocks and go head-to-head for a gold medal. But Ferguson and Williams don’t mind.
“I encourage Lauryn every day to kick my butt,” says Ferguson. “That’s the nature of the sport. That’s what it’s about.”
Says Williams, “There’s definitely a little competitive mentality there. But it’s good for us. It’s all in the family. We love each other, and at the finish line, whoever wins, we’re going to be supportive of that person.”
Swimming for a dream
University of Miami head swimming coach Mariusz Podkoscielny knows better than anyone what it takes to prepare for Olympic competition. As an 18-year-old from Poland who had just graduated from high school, he moved to Mission Viejo, California, to train for the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games.
The rigorous training and dedication obviously paid off, as Podkoscielny not only competed at Seoul but in the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain, as well. He once held the Olympic record in the 400-meter freestyle.
A former All-American at the University of Arizona, Podkoscielny now is passing on his invaluable knowledge of the sport to UM’s talented core of swimmers.
For UM breaststroker Martyna Krawczyk, who is training to compete for her native Poland in the 2004 Olympic Games, combining athletics with academics is a tremendous challenge.
“If they are successful in the water, they’re going to be successful in the classroom because it’s the mind-set that they have,” Podkoscielny says of his swimmers. “In the United States you can really do both at a very high level because the support system around you makes it possible.”
The experience of competing in an Olympic Games is like no other in the world, Podkoscielny says. “The moment you set foot in an Olympic Village, you’re surrounded by thousands of athletes who took different paths to get there. But at the end of the day, they’re all there for the same reason. And competing itself-racing against the best swimmers in the world and knowing that there are very few people who achieve that goal-that in itself is the thrill of a lifetime.” I