UC Irvine Notebook / Barbie Ludovise : For Decathlete Williams, Life Offers a Variety of Experiences

In between sprinting, hurdling, long jumping, pole vaulting and throwing the javelin, shot and discus, UC Irvine decathlete Jeff Williams has little time for anything except sleeping, eating and studying.

That means Williams, a 24-year-old senior, is the typical college athlete, right?

Not quite.

Williams, an English/creative writing major, enjoys espousing the virtues of poetry, quoting Walt Whitman and discussing philosophical theories with his teammates.

Within the first few minutes of an interview, Williams' train of thought zips from ideas on current education--"Sometimes I think I'll start my own school and make all the kids take auto shop. I think all kids should learn how to fix their own car,"--to his feelings after he found out that his favorite author, Edward Abbey, recently died--"My whole day just kind of stopped. It's the only death that's really bothered me."

Williams, whose poems have been published in university quarterlies, said he enjoys writing "plain-speaking little stories that illuminate little truths (because) I don't want to take aim at too much. . . ." He said athletics supplies a much-needed balance to his life.

Today, at the Big West Conference track and field championships at Cerritos College, Williams will begin that two-day, 10-event track-and-field odyssey: the decathlon.

Williams enters the competition as the conference's second-ranked decathlete, having scored 7,201 points at the Azusa Pacific Invitational two weeks ago. Fresno State's Tim Baker, the Big West runner-up in the event last year, is the conference leader with a best of 7,315 points.

Williams, who came to Irvine two years ago after a year at the Air Force Academy, a quarter at the University of Utah and a year at Saddleback College, says his main objective today and Friday is not so much to win but to do his best and hopefully score the 7,425 points needed to qualify for the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. championships May 30-June 3 at Provo, Utah.

"Actually, I'd just like to see both (Baker) and I qualify for the NCAAs," Williams said. "The decathlon is sort of weird that way. It's the nature of the event--you end up being friends with your competition. With 10 events, you see too much of each other to hate each other."

It would be difficult to imagine finding anything to hate about Williams, one of Irvine's three team captains. His friendly, easy-going personality has made him popular with coaches and teammates.

And now, after years of satisfactory but not stunning performances, Williams has become one of Irvine's top point-earners. His improvement this year has been rapid, especially in the pole vault.

At the Azusa meet, where Williams went into the competition with a best of 16-feet 3/4-inches, he leaped 17 feet, and narrowly missed at 17-4. The NCAA qualifying standard for the pole vault is 17-6.

Despite the fact he has never leaped more than 16 feet in practice, Williams said the mark did not surprise him.

"It was funny. It surprised everyone but me," he said. "I had visualized it before the meet. I went into it expecting to make 17. I just knew it would happen."

Irvine Coach Vince O'Boyle thinks Williams has the potential for the same type of improvement in other events as well, making him a candidate for some big points down the road.

"He's gotten better and better, he's just scraping the surface," O'Boyle said. "At the beginning of year, he was having problems. He was getting hurt and couldn't complete one (decathlon). But we knew once he completed one, he'd score well. But my gosh, he's got so much room for improvement."

Williams took part in his first decathlon when he was 7. His uncle, John Williams, an assistant track coach at Saddleback College, was a standout decathlete at Iowa in the mid '70s. And his father, Dave Williams, was an All-American in the event for Washington.

Sixteen years ago, John challenged Dave to a decathlon duel. Though only 7 at the time, Jeff joined in, and ever since, the Williams family has staged an annual track and field meet/family reunion.

But Jeff always viewed track and field as fun and games, never taking the sport seriously. And because he and his family moved frequently, following his father's property development successes, Williams never established any solid roots in organized youth sports.

In high school--he attended Fountain Valley as a freshman, Laguna Beach as a sophomore and Hawaii Prep Academy in Kamuela, Hawaii, as a junior and senior--Williams played wide receiver on the football team and competed in track and field.

He went to the Air Force Academy to play football, but left after a year because, he said, "It gets old being told what to do and how to think." He followed a friend to Utah, where he was a walk-on football player. But there, "I got further disillusioned with the politics of football," he said, and left.

At Saddleback, he got back into track, and placed second in the state decathlon to George Wainscoat. Wainscoat went on to Irvine the next year, and urged Williams to join him. O'Boyle offered a partial scholarship, and Williams became an Anteater.

"It's strange that I'm here because I really don't like Orange County. I prefer a more natural environment.

"Ideally, I'd have a cabin in Montana with big picture windows and a huge library, where I'd just read and write all day."

Along with Williams, the Irvine men's track and field team also expects big performances from Ryan Gillette, the Big West's second-ranked high jumper and triple jumper; Mike Morales, top-ranked in the discus and second-ranked in the hammer and shot put; Will Stolpe, top-ranked in the 200 meters, and Marc Goulet, top-ranked in the 800 and 1,500 meters.

Pole vaulter Erik Kenyon, who strained a hamstring in a meet last Saturday, is expected to vault. Kenyon is tied with Fresno State's Bump Novacek and Derek Oliver at a conference-leading mark of 17-0 3/4.

Fresno State, the six-time defending conference champion, is favored to win again this year, though O'Boyle said the meet should be closer than it has been in the past.

"Fresno would be the favorite, without a doubt," O'Boyle said. "But I said that last year, too. It's like a recording around here. Our staff says it should be closer every year, but Fresno's real good at getting up for this meet."

The Irvine women's team, led by All-American distance runner Beth McGrann, and Brigid Stirling, the conference leader at 1,500 and 3,000 meters, does not have the overall speed or depth of the favorites, Nevada Las Vegas and Fresno State.

Since the women began competing in the conference five years ago, UNLV has won three titles and Fresno State the past two. Irvine finished second last year in both men's and women's competition.

Anteater Notes

Irvine's sailing team, the defending national champion, won its fourth consecutive Pacific Coast Championship title last weekend. Irvine totaled 62 points at Cabrillo State Beach to outdistance 10 teams, including second-place USC (85 points), UC Santa Barbara (100) and Stanford (112). Irvine and USC advance to the Intercollegiate Yacht Racing Assn. national championships at the Chicago Yacht Club June 3-6. Irvine is the nation's top-ranked team.

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