WITH THE U.S. Olympic trials about two months away, sprinter BernardWilliams is no longer running from his past or struggling with his future.
"I'm 26 years old now," said Williams, a Baltimore native, after an earlymorning workout at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "I have adaughter. I have a family. I live in one place, train in one place and havereunited with my old coach. I read the Bible daily - started that about amonth ago. I'm settled and more focused now than ever."
If that's indeed true, then it's good news for the U.S. Olympic team. Whenhe's focused, Williams is as fast as Maurice Greene, Jon Drummond and TimMontgomery. But when he isn't, then he is nothing more than another fast guywith potential, one of track and field's biggest enigmas.
No one is surprised when Williams runs away from a field or when he bombs.Often, he has been labeled immature, a runner with raw speed who lacksdiscipline. Since 2000, Williams seems to have changed coaches as often as hehas changed shoes.
"There were too many times where I would let things on the outsideinfluence me," said Williams, a graduate of Carver High. "I would let thosethings move me outside of the zone where I needed to be, then it would buildup and I would end up falling. There are a lot of people out there waiting tosee you fall.
"For years, I tried to accomplish everything by myself, but now I'm puttingit in God's hands. I'm studying the word, applying those values to my life. IfGod wants me to obtain a certain status, I will. If it is meant to happen, itwill. I can't concentrate on anyone else, I have to concentrate on me."
This sounds like a totally different Williams from the one we saw win a2000 Olympic relay gold medal. That Williams was brash and cocky. Afterwinning the race in Sydney, Australia, Williams and his teammates joggedaround the track showboating and wrapped themselves in the American flag.
They flexed more than Hulk Hogan.
Despite being cheered on by some in attendance, they were later criticizedfor an ugly American celebration. Williams and his teammates eventuallyapologized, but his reputation was damaged.
The immaturity label has never left him.
Williams has always been a fun-loving person, quick with a witty commentand one-liners. He spends time speaking to church groups and going toorphanages. But on the day he won that medal, a kid from the rough side ofWest Baltimore was put on the international stage without much of a clue.
The Olympic celebration was somewhat excusable. Failure now isn't.
"Nah, that will never happen again," Williams said. "I offended a lot ofpeople. I was having a good time, but I didn't control myself. Back then, noone told me anything about the rules or what was proper.
"I learned from that experience. I was humbled," said Williams. "A lot ofthings I once took for granted, I don't take for granted anymore. I'vetraveled pretty extensively now. I'm a lot wiser."
Wise enough to rehire Mike Holloway as his coach. Williams left Hollowaysoon after leaving Florida, joining the Los Angeles-based HSI group, where hetrained with highly regarded John Smith. But about two years later, Williamsleft HSI, and since has had a smorgasbord of coaches, including John Tabor andformer bronze medalist Dennis Mitchell. Last spring, Tony Ross coached him fora couple of months, followed by Williams training himself.
Bad idea. Williams had an unimpressive summer, at least by his ownstandards.
"They [HSI] tried to interfere with my personal business, but I had to gowith my heart," said Williams. "They didn't want me to date Anjanette[Kirkland, a former world champion hurdler who also was affiliated with HSI].I had kept in contact with Mike over the years and never burned any of mybridges. He knew that me going to HSI was strictly a business decision,nothing personal.
"But now we're back together again," said Williams. "He gives me that extrapair of eyes, because sometimes you can't see yourself, you can't define allthe little flaws. He gives me a structured program and the discipline toenforce it."
So each morning when Williams goes to the weight room, Holloway is there.When Williams hits the track, Holloway is there. They talk and plan out meals.They keep trying to perfect Williams' start out of the blocks, where he oftentends to come up too high.
One slight flaw could make the difference between going to Athens, Greece,later this summer or staying home and watching the Olympics on television. Itcould mean the difference between winning a gold, silver or bronze medal or nomedal at all.
For Williams, the 2004 games are about respect. He doesn't get any. Quitefrankly, he hasn't earned much yet. Despite the showing in Sydney and beingthe reigning U.S. 100-meter champion, no one ever asks Williams for anautograph.
He is recognized more for being an enigma than his achievements. After thelast Summer Games, there were some who thought he was ready to become theworld's fastest human.
It hasn't happened.
"If you don't win consistently, you are nonexistent and you don't have avoice," said Williams. "In our sport, they don't respect anybody until you wina gold medal individually. In a sense, I'm still trying to earn that toprespect.
"Whatever happens, happens, but I'm confident and focused. There can be noquestion about that."