THE LAST TIME I had seen U.S. Olympic sprinter Bernard Williams was eight months ago when he was delivering a speech about staying in school and away from drugs to youngsters at the Union Street United Methodist Church in Westminster.
Even then, almost two weeks after Williams had run the race of his life and won a gold medal at the
in Sydney, Australia, he was still receiving hate mail calling him classless, disrespectful, shallow and a "thug," a term America loves to throw on black athletes as soon as there is a hint of trouble.
Those were the nice ones.
In Sydney, Williams and three members of the United States' gold-medal 400-meter relay team took a rambling, raucous victory lap that carried over to the victory ceremony. They flexed, posed and wrapped themselves in the American flag.
No question, it was an embarrassment, but not done out of disrespect. It was just the exuberance of a 22-year-old who had overcome deplorable living conditions in Baltimore, then had the biggest moment of his life on the world's largest stage.
Certainly, Williams wasn't deserving of the ridicule from some of my colleagues who, as I suggested months ago, should hold off judgment until Williams 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 and perseverance, characteristics usually not associated with "thugs." Of course, it's still early in his career, but there have been guys who have stumbled in their first year, like
But so far, Williams, now 23, is running strong through the maze of big money, fast living, fame and adulation that often comes with living outside Los Angeles. He apparently is the same old sprinter, one of the fastest men in the world, who over the weekend earned a trip to the world championships in Edmonton, Alberta, in early August.
And apparently, he's the same goal-oriented, funny guy who never got into any trouble until his Olympic episode last summer.
"He is a pretty articulate, intelligent guy who was an academic All-American at Florida, but he likes to have fun. I couldn't believe all the things that were either written or said about him," said John Tabor, Williams' longtime coach in Baltimore who communicates with him often. "He has earned quite a bit of money for himself, established some acquaintances. He has grown up quite a bit on and off the track. Some of his old friends may say he has changed, but Bernard realizes that he has to conduct himself in a positive manner.
"I think he was kind of reluctant to turn pro at first," Tabor said. "He had to move to California, establish himself with a new coach. Overall, though, he has adjusted real well, but he did have a few trials and tribulations he had to overcome."
One of them was not money. Despite signing with sponsor
, Williams isn't into fancy clothes or cars. He drives a 2000 Gallant and lives in a modest apartment outside of Los Angeles. Most of his days are spent practicing about five hours or attending class at UCLA, where he is 25 credits short of acquiring a bachelor of science degree in sociology.
One of the first things he did was buy his mother, Angela, a plane ticket to Los Angeles. According to Williams, she has never traveled outside of Baltimore.
She found Los Angeles just as fascinating as her son, but Bernard Williams didn't want to become too infatuated with the city. A lot of souls have been lost there. Williams has met actors
and Larenz Tate and been out with comedians
and Sinbad, but tries to avoid a lot of the parties.
"I do my little gigs as a stand-up comedian, but that's about it," said Williams, a 1997 Carver Vo-Tech graduate, of his new hobby. "I don't hang out too much because it's so easy to get caught up. There are a lot of famous people out here, and there is always something going on. I have to take care of business and stay focused."
That's where HSI (Hudson
) coach John Smith enters the picture. According to Tabor, Williams started to stray from the team earlier this season because of other priorities. Smith called a meeting and gave Williams one of those my-way-or-the-highway speeches.
He also urged him to read a few inspirational books, a lot of them based on Christianity. "John is more direct than his college coach," Tabor said. "He was more businesslike, not going to be Bernard's friend. It came to a point where 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 through here."
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 the fastest man on the planet.
Two months ago, he finished second in the 100 meters in 10.17 seconds in Japan. He finished second twice two weeks ago in Italy in the 100 meters, and third 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 a second behind first-place finisher Tim Montgomery. Williams also had a shot to qualify to run the 200 meters at the world championships, but bowed out of the U.S. finals because of a tight groin muscle.
But there is no limit to his potential. He has looked past the competitive field and into the future. If he can work on his start coming out of the blocks, he'll one day catch and pass the top runner in his field, Maurice Greene, the reigning Olympic champion and world-record holder.
"I don't have my race pattern down yet," Williams said. "The other guys have 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 have improved socially, financially, and I am accepting responsibility. My three goals are to win a world championship, stay healthy and be a role model.