Hometowns Help Cheer Olympians To Victory

Jul 23, 2012
Originally published on July 24, 2012 12:41 pm

Before the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, U.S. sprinter Lauryn Williams accepted that her father, who was suffering from leukemia, wouldn't be there to see her compete in the 100-meter dash. But when residents of her hometown in Rochester, Pa., heard about it, they raised enough money to send her father and several other family members to Athens.

"I was very surprised," Williams tells NPR's Neal Conan. "It was really a great experience just to see everyone rally together."

She credits her hometown support for helping her win the silver medal. It "is so significant to ... making that performance," she says. "You can just relax and go out there and compete at your best."

Williams says the people of Rochester have always been with her.

"It's been the little things, even from ... the high school years where other people were driving me to track meets and things like that if my dad was sick or unavailable."

And those little things made a big difference in her life. "What people don't realize [is] it's not always money that we need. It's just, you know, dedicating your time to us and the little charitable things that can help somebody take a little stress off your shoulders."

She continues to receive support from Rochester and her current hometown of Miami as she competes in the 2012 Olympic relay pool. Conan talks with Williams, named the world's fastest woman in 2005, about what emotional and financial support from a hometown means to an Olympian.

Tell us: Who's your hometown Olympian?

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.

During the run-up to the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, U.S. sprinter Lauryn Williams came to accept that her father was not going to be able to get there to see her compete. He was suffering from leukemia. Also, he needed regular dialysis treatments. When residents of her hometown in Rochester, Pennsylvania heard about this, they raised enough money to send her father and several other family members to see her win what turned out to be a silver medal in the 100-meter dash. While competing for Team USA, the emotional and financial support Olympians receive from small towns can be invaluable.

Who is your hometown Olympian? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Lauryn Williams earned the title as fastest woman on Earth in 2005. She joins us now from the BBC studios in Birmingham, England where she's preparing for what will be her third Olympic Games. And nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

LAURYN WILLIAMS: It's so wonderful to be here.

CONAN: And I - reading the story, you didn't even ask for this money. You just mentioned in a newspaper article your father wasn't going to be able to make it.

WILLIAMS: I did. I was explaining about how there was a fundraiser done in Michigan where my mom was living and that, you know, my father was not going to be able to make it and I was OK with it, and I know it was going to be hard for him and just kind of mentioned it in passing in the article as well. And next thing we knew, money came pouring in.

CONAN: From your hometown, Rochester, Pennsylvania.

WILLIAMS: All over Pennsylvania, yes.

CONAN: All over Pennsylvania.

WILLIAMS: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, yeah. Well, I'm from Rochester, Pennsylvania.

CONAN: And were you surprised?

WILLIAMS: I was very surprised. It was really a great experience just to see everyone rally together. And we didn't end up sending just my father. We sent my father, my - four of my five sisters, the husband, one of my brothers. So it was eight people in total that, you know, we ended up raising money for all of them to be able to participate and come to Athens.

CONAN: And so they were there to watch you win a medal. You lost, first, the gold medal by what, an eyelash.

WILLIAMS: An eyelash, 0.03 seconds.


CONAN: A bummer. But nevertheless a silver medal is nothing to sneeze at.

WILLIAMS: Especially at age 20. It was a really great experience.

CONAN: And, of course, it was a great experience for your family too. Your father has since passed away. And so this must have been a great moment for him and all your other siblings.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, it was really cool for him to be able to be there. And he even got sick while over there. And even the way people rallied together to make sure that he was in the right hospital - he was getting support from so many different areas, both large and small - is so significant to, you know, making that performance, something that you can just relax and go out there and compete at your best.

CONAN: These days, you wear a Miami jersey when you compete. That's another hometown, I guess.

WILLIAMS: Yes, I went to University of Miami and graduated in 2004. I've been there for the last 10 years. My coach, Amy Deem, at the University of Miami is now the head coach of the Olympic team this year. So it's really been the cool honor to see that come full circle and her work her way up to the top and get all these accolades.

CONAN: I wonder, though, every four years this becomes such a big deal. Track and field, of course, is a big sport but not as big as it is during the Olympic Games. Do people recognize you?

WILLIAMS: I actually am recognized a little bit, you know? Like, people come to the Olympic, like, they're so glued to the TV during the Olympic Games that in between those times that I am getting recognized pretty regularly. And it's a pretty cool experience. You know, I'm not like LeBron James or Dwyane Wade or anything, but apparently regularly I get recognized.

CONAN: And did you go back to Rochester Pennsylvania to thank the people?

WILLIAMS: Oh, definitely. I go home as often as I can. I still have sisters and other family members there, so yeah, they always rally around me and support me. And I said it's been the little things, even from, you know, the high school years where other people were driving me to, you know, track meets and things like that if my dad was sick or unavailable. The team has just always been with me. They've always supported me. They always invested in me because they saw my potential. So it's been really cool to grow up in such a small town where they rally behind me all the time.

CONAN: And it's those little things, I think, that can make a huge difference in somebody's life.

WILLIAMS: Definitely. That's one of the biggest things. What people don't realize it's not always money that we need. It's just, you know, dedicating your time to us and the little, you know, charitable things that can help somebody take a little stress off your shoulders and me being able to reach my full potential.

CONAN: Talk about talking stress off. We have this email from Andrew in Aurora, Colorado: Who's our hometown Olympian? Missy Franklin, the 17-year-old swimming phenom, is both a student in my high school, Regis, 1973, and a neighbor in Aurora, also home to the 24-year-old who killed more than a dozen moviegoers. Do great things, Missy, and help distract us from this latest tragedy. So I guess this cuts both ways. The people take enormous pride in their hometown Olympian.

WILLIAMS: Definitely. I think that's really cool when we can uplift the - a whole city or even a whole state by just getting out there and representing to the best of our best ability. Of course, we always, you know, hoping to bring home gold. But in the event that we don't, we know that those people are going to be proud of us for how hard we worked and how much effort we put into representing them as a city, as a town or as a state.

CONAN: And I think people have this, I guess, perception that if you're an Olympic athlete, an elite world-class athlete, there must be a lot of money involved.


WILLIAMS: Yeah. Like I said, I'm no LeBron James or Dwyane Wade at all.


CONAN: I'm not (unintelligible) either. No.

WILLIAMS: Yeah, track and field has been lucky enough to become one of the better professional sports, but there's a large range. You know, I think people know Usain Bolt and I don't think that, yeah, the majority of the track and field athlete makes anything like Usain Bolt does, so. A lot of us depend on - actually, in 2004 I can tell a story about a high jumper who worked 80 hours a week and won the silver medal. And we were traveling home together and he was saying, I'm really looking forward to be able to just work in a 40-hour week. And he had just won a silver medal. So I was thinking that, you know, he'd had enough money to not have to work at all, just be able to train and do his high jump, but he was just going for a 40-hour week instead of a 80-hour week on top of his training.

CONAN: On top of his training. So we want to hear from you. Who is your hometown Olympian? What is your town doing to support him or her? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And let's start with Isaac. And Isaac's on the line with us from Fort Wayne.

ISAAC: I'm sorry. What's that again?

CONAN: You're on the air. Isaac, go ahead.

ISAAC: Oh, hi. I just wanted to call in. I grew up Volgograd, Russia, and our hometown star is Yelena Isinbayeva. And she is the two-time Olympic champion in pole vaulting.

CONAN: You've done marvelous with your accent.

ISAAC: I'm actually from Fort Wayne, Indiana. That's where I was born and raised, but I was raised for seven years in Volgograd, Russia.

CONAN: And you think of that as your hometown? Do you know what your - the people there in Volgograd do to support your jumper?

ISAAC: Yeah. They actually - when she was younger, she and her sister trained to be gymnasts. And as she grew older, she got taller, where now she is probably like six feet tall, and the hometown really gathered around her to support her changing her event from, you know, gymnastics to pole vaulting.

CONAN: And how do you keep in touch with her exploits?

ISAAC: I haven't talked to her in a couple years. My mother sometimes - she called her in Moscow a couple years ago. But I haven't had touch with her in a long time, but I do every once in a while keep up with her sister.

CONAN: And do you ever get back to the town that used to be known as Stalingrad?

ISAAC: Yes, I do. I try to go every couple years. My parents actually live in Kiev, Ukraine, right now, so I try to make it over and hopefully make it over this fall.

CONAN: Well, have a nice trip, and we'll wish her all the luck in the world.

ISAAC: All right. Thanks for putting me on.

CONAN: Appreciate the phone call. Here's an email we have from Kimberly in Bend, Oregon: Bend, Oregon's hometown Olympian is Ashton Eaton, talented athlete, educated and all-around nice young man. He was raised by a single mom who taught him to be a well-grounded human. It couldn't have been easy growing up here as biracial. Bend is only now beginning to be more multicultural. We are very proud of Ashton.

And, Lauryn Williams, one of the benefits of being an Olympian is to live in the Olympic Village, to get to meet all these people, not just from track and field, those people you probably know pretty well, but pole vaulters and people like Ashton Eaton.

WILLIAMS: It is a really cool opportunity. And I've run into both Isinbayeva and Ashton Eaton many times. And it is just really cool to see Ashton, you know, getting ready to represent the United States, already having broke the world record at the U.S. Olympic trials. It's just really cool to see, you know, how in Eugene even people showed up and got ready to support him and cheered him on. And the crowd went crazy as he came home during his last event hoping that he was going to run fast enough to break the world record. So to already have achieved that before you even made it to the Olympics this year is just phenomenal. And I know he couldn't have done it without the support of the people of Oregon.

CONAN: And as we mentioned, this would be your third Olympic Games, so you must be able to have a lot of compare and contrast. How is this different from China?

WILLIAMS: I think the main thing is that there is English being spoken this time around, so there's a lot going on in London. I haven't made...

CONAN: A close variant of English, yes.


WILLIAMS: I haven't quite made it into the village yet. A lot of the other athletes have gone over and processed and come back. We'll head over on Thursday or Friday right before the opening ceremony. So I'm really looking forward to that opportunity to get in the village and checking it out, like you said, meeting all kinds of different new people. And I think this time I'm kind of just delighting the process. You know, maybe as a 2004 athlete, I took it a little bit for granted. You know, just kind of like a deer in headlights. I didn't have anything to lose, so I just went with it. In 2008, I think I was feeling the pressure of being a professional athlete. And so this time, I really get to delight in the process and see all the different things that are important about the Olympic spirit.

CONAN: And this time around, you're going to be part of the pool in the relay, correct?

WILLIAMS: That's correct.

CONAN: So one of the people who could be selected to run in the relay race. So you're going to be obviously paying close attention to what your rivals are doing, your rivals and teammates?

WILLIAMS: Definitely. Exactly. I just want to make sure that I'm, you know, training and keeping my body fit in the event that someone's unable to run or in the event that I, you know, have to run the preliminary rounds in order to rest some of the other athletes that are doing one or two events in the Olympic Games. So really looking forward to having my opportunity to go for gold, especially after, you know, 2004 and 2008, where we didn't have relay success. I'm really looking forward to redeeming ourselves and getting out there and getting that gold medal from Team USA.

CONAN: Training to not drop the baton.

WILLIAMS: We are not going to drop the baton.


CONAN: Here's an email from Casey in Norwood, Ohio: My hometown Olympian is Kayla Harrison, women's judo, 78 kilograms. She's expected to win the gold in her bracket as she has recently won matches over all her opponents in other international competitions. There was an awesome article in the Cincinnati newspaper about her personal triumph over abuse by a previous coach. I am proud to say she is from Southwest, Ohio, and will make sure I cheer her on. We're talking with sprinter Lauryn Williams. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's see if we can go to next to - this is Hanna(ph, and Hanna's with us from Gastonia in North Carolina.

HANNA: Yeah, hi. How are you?

CONAN: I'm good. Thanks.

HANNA: Great. Yeah, so my future brother-in-law, Eric, otherwise known as Butter Curd, is competing with his best friend, Jeff Larimer, in C2, which are the - it's the double the canoe - the kayaking.

CONAN: And so where do they train?

HANNA: They train locally here at the U.S. Whitewater Center right outside of Charlotte.

CONAN: So this is from their hometown, and they're able to train there as well.

HANNA: Right. Well, they're both originally from Georgia, but Butter moved here to Gastonia in order train, so he's been training for the past number of years here. And then him and Jeff had actually been alternatively spending, you know, weekends with each other, either training down in Georgia or up here training at the Whitewater Center.

CONAN: And canoeing is another of those sports where you're not remunerated like LeBron James.


HANNA: Unfortunately, it hasn't gone that, you know, claim to fame yet. But, you know, around here, people know about it. So that's pretty cool.

CONAN: All right. Hanna, we wish them the best of luck. Thanks very much for the phone call.

HANNA: Well, thank you, guys. Appreciate it.

CONAN: And it's interesting, she was talking about the training center. So you were adopted by various places, Lauryn Williams, as you go along. You mentioned, obviously, your hometown in Pennsylvania but then, of course, Miami, where you went to university. And are there - in a sense, Eugene, where the track and field finals are - preliminaries are held, that must be a bit of a hometown, too.

WILLIAMS: Definitely. Everywhere you go and you find track and field fans, it kind of becomes your hometown. It's the little things. I was just in Monaco this past weekend. There were some Americans sitting across from the table. I was having dinner and, you know, I started chit-chat with them. And before you know it, I was heading out, and I kept waving, like, why is the lady not bringing my check? And they had picked up the check. So little support comes from everywhere. You know, at Team USA, we band together and your hometown is everywhere when you run into people that are really looking forward to supporting you and want you to do your best to succeed.

CONAN: Here's a tweet from Sally Gore: For many years, I lived down the road from Joan Benoit Samuelson. I could not have had a better Olympic hero in my midst. Special.

And this from Patricio in Cairo, Georgia: Teresa Edwards, basketball player and a really good person. She sends a picture of her as well. Edwards is the first basketball player, male or female, to have played in five Olympics. She competed for the United States in 19 international competitions. Her team won 14 gold medals. She also holds the unique distinction of being the youngest gold medalist in women's basketball, age 20 in 1984, and the oldest gold medalist in women's basketball age 36 in 2000.

She holds the record for points in a woman's basketball game in the United States with 46. She made a record fifth Olympic basketball team, earning a fourth gold medal to go with her bronze. She returned to Europe to play professionally in 2002. And that's a long career. Lauryn Williams, is three Olympic Games a lot for a sprinter?

WILLIAMS: Three Olympic Games is a lot for a sprinter. There's very few of us on this team that have been around for the last three games, and I think there is even a slight few that have done four games. I don't know very many - actually, I can't name anyone that's done five Olympic Games from the U.S. Team. But, yeah, every four years, it's a long time. Lots of things happen from one year to the next. And to be ready and fit enough - and U.S. team is the hardest team to make. There's three spots. It's very competitive. You know, we have eight people. If we could take eight Americans to some of these finals, we'd probably get places one through eight, you know? We're that good in the world. So three Olympic teams is a great honor and a really good accomplishment for me and for anyone else who's achieved it. So, yeah, for that girl as well. It's amazing to have done so much.

CONAN: Let's go next to Ruthie(ph), Ruthie on the line with us from Gainesville.

RUTHIE: Yes. Hi.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please. Who's your local Olympian?

RUTHIE: I was - I'd like a (technical difficulty) to have Ryan Lochte, but I'm calling to give high-five to Jade Childs. She is a Paralympian swimmer who will be going to London to swim the 50-meter butterfly.

CONAN: In the Paralympics Games which immediately follow the Olympic Games.

RUTHIE: That's right, that's right. I think just after that last part of August. And Jade is a part of an organization that supports families whose children have upper limb differences and birth defects. And that group is called Hands to Love. And Hands to Love will be hosting fundraisers for Jade and her family to support them in going as group to (technical difficulty).

CONAN: Well, we wish both her and Ryan Lochte great success in London. Thanks very much for the phone call.

RUTHIE: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Lauryn Williams, good luck to you as well. When are you going to find out if you're going to run or not?

WILLIAMS: We don't find out until like probably two or three days before, but I'm really optimistic that I will be one of the members that will get to run.

CONAN: Well, congratulations if you do, and you'll be part of the team even if you don't.

WILLIAMS: Exactly. I'm really looking forward to playing a supporting role. And as long as we get that gold medal, I'm going to be proud no matter what.

CONAN: Lauryn Williams joined us from Birmingham, England where she will be competing in the relay pool. She won the silver medal for the 100 meter dash in 2004 and was the fastest woman in the world in 2005. Tomorrow, Elton John on AIDS, loss and his new book "Love is the Cure." Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.