THE LAST TIME I had seen U.S. Olympic sprinter Bernard Williams was eightmonths ago when he was delivering a speech about staying in school and awayfrom drugs to youngsters at the Union Street United Methodist Church inWestminster.
Even then, almost two weeks after Williams had run the race of his life andwon a gold medal at the Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, he was stillreceiving hate mail calling him classless, disrespectful, shallow and a"thug," a term America loves to throw on black athletes as soon as there is ahint of trouble.
Those were the nice ones.
In Sydney, Williams and three members of the United States' gold-medal400-meter relay team took a rambling, raucous victory lap that carried over tothe victory ceremony. They flexed, posed and wrapped themselves in theAmerican flag.
No question, it was an embarrassment, but not done out of disrespect. Itwas just the exuberance of a 22-year-old who had overcome deplorable livingconditions in Baltimore, then had the biggest moment of his life on theworld's largest stage.
Certainly, Williams wasn't deserving of the ridicule from some of mycolleagues who, as I suggested months ago, should hold off judgment untilWilliams matures instead of painting him as the newest, uneducated,beyond-repair WWF wrestler.
But have you seen Williams lately?
He is making it through his first year as a pro with poise, confidence andperseverance, characteristics usually not associated with "thugs." Of course,it's still early in his career, but there have been guys who have stumbled intheir first year, like Allen Iverson and Ryan Leaf.
But so far, Williams, now 23, is running strong through the maze of bigmoney, fast living, fame and adulation that often comes with living outsideLos Angeles. He apparently is the same old sprinter, one of the fastest men inthe world, who over the weekend earned a trip to the world championships inEdmonton, Alberta, in early August.
And apparently, he's the same goal-oriented, funny guy who never got intoany trouble until his Olympic episode last summer.
"He is a pretty articulate, intelligent guy who was an academicAll-American at Florida, but he likes to have fun. I couldn't believe all thethings that were either written or said about him," said John Tabor, Williams'longtime coach in Baltimore who communicates with him often. "He has earnedquite a bit of money for himself, established some acquaintances. He has grownup quite a bit on and off the track. Some of his old friends may say he haschanged, but Bernard realizes that he has to conduct himself in a positivemanner.
"I think he was kind of reluctant to turn pro at first," Tabor said. "Hehad to move to California, establish himself with a new coach. Overall,though, he has adjusted real well, but he did have a few trials andtribulations he had to overcome."
One of them was not money. Despite signing with sponsor Nike, Williamsisn't into fancy clothes or cars. He drives a 2000 Gallant and lives in amodest apartment outside of Los Angeles. Most of his days are spent practicingabout five hours or attending class at UCLA, where he is 25 credits short ofacquiring a bachelor of science degree in sociology.
One of the first things he did was buy his mother, Angela, a plane ticketto Los Angeles. According to Williams, she has never traveled outside ofBaltimore.
She found Los Angeles just as fascinating as her son, but Bernard Williamsdidn't want to become too infatuated with the city. A lot of souls have beenlost there. Williams has met actors Nicolas Cage and Larenz Tate and been outwith comedians Chris Tucker and Sinbad, but tries to avoid a lot of theparties.
"I do my little gigs as a stand-up comedian, but that's about it," saidWilliams, a 1997 Carver Vo-Tech graduate, of his new hobby. "I don't hang outtoo much because it's so easy to get caught up. There are a lot of famouspeople out here, and there is always something going on. I have to take careof business and stay focused."
That's where HSI (Hudson Smith International) coach John Smith enters thepicture. According to Tabor, Williams started to stray from the team earlierthis season because of other priorities. Smith called a meeting and gaveWilliams one of those my-way-or-the-highway speeches.
He also urged him to read a few inspirational books, a lot of them based onChristianity. "John is more direct than his college coach," Tabor said. "Hewas more businesslike, not going to be Bernard's friend. It came to a pointwhere he told Bernard if you want to be here, fine, then do what you're told.If not, get out because there will be another one like you to come throughhere."
End of problem.
But that served as another growth chapter in the life of Bernard Williams.If he continues to improve, there is little doubt he will one day become thefastest man on the planet.
Two months ago, he finished second in the 100 meters in 10.17 seconds inJapan. He finished second twice two weeks ago in Italy in the 100 meters, andthird nearly a week later in Greece.
Last weekend, Williams finished second in the 100 meters at the U.S.Championships in Eugene, Ore., with a time of 9.98, three-hundredths of asecond behind first-place finisher Tim Montgomery. Williams also had a shot toqualify to run the 200 meters at the world championships, but bowed out of theU.S. finals because of a tight groin muscle.
But there is no limit to his potential. He has looked past the competitivefield and into the future. If he can work on his start coming out of theblocks, he'll one day catch and pass the top runner in his field, MauriceGreene, the reigning Olympic champion and world-record holder.
"I don't have my race pattern down yet," Williams said. "The other guyshave more experience, but once I get my race down, I'll be unbeatable.Everyone else is afraid of Maurice, but I always tell him I'm coming.
"I'm happy with the way things have worked out, but not satisfied. I haveimproved socially, financially, and I am accepting responsibility. My threegoals are to win a world championship, stay healthy and be a role model.
"I don't talk much about what happened at the Olympics because there was nointent to be disrespectful, and I should have been more mindful of others. Ilook back now and laugh a little because I learned from it. But it's a newyear and I'm a new man."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times