Tuesday, 16 July 2013

a little chat with Lauryn Williams...




I’m not going to give a long introduction to this.  Because really, it doesn’t need one.  This post is a conversation I had with Lauryn Williams - one of the greatest female sprinters in history, who has decided to call curtains on her fantastic career (although I - and probably many others - will continue to try to talk her out of it!).  This little chat was the day after the news broke out regarding Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell, and Sherone Simpson, so you can guess what we spent a lot of time talking about the previous couple of days...


In the following post, we discuss this, as well as her thoughts on retirement, supplementation, and the athlete’s responsibility.  


Many Canadians' favorite interviewer is George Stroumboulopolous, who once famously interviewed Bono on the way to the airport in the back of a limo.  I had no limo, but in the style of George, this was recorded in the car on the way to Nice Côte d'Azur Airport...


Retirement...

So - you’re 29 years old...what should be the peak of your career.  And you’re thinking of hanging it up!  What’s up?

LW: Yes - I’m considering calling this my final season, and there’s many different reasons why that is so.  I have been doing this for ten years.  I had lots of success early on, and not so much as of late.  I see that as aging - the resources I have available are different.  Meaning - putting a good team together - it’s not an easy thing in America!  You know - I think a lot of places get a one-stop shop.  We don’t!  Like, my physio can only see me for 25 min here, maybe 25 minutes there.  Right now - where I am in Texas - I drive an hour and a half just to see a Physio.  To get the kind of work that my body needs - the basic amount of work that a professional athlete requires - it’s just very difficult for me to get everything I need to be able to continue to do this well, and one of the huge things that people are saying that is causing me to possibly NOT run well near the end of my career is that I will not use supplements...

Well - let’s discuss that a little later

LW: ...Ok

So basically, you’re saying your body is just starting to break down.  You don’t think you can continue getting faster - but in actual fact, you had a better Season’s Best this past year, than you did last season!

LW: This is true...I was in a new environment this year in Texas (with coaches Vince Anderson and Andreas Behm) - maybe that helped.  To be honest, I really don’t know why.  I can’t really give a good reason...

One of the biggest things for me is I struggle with my weight.  I think that is what has contributed to doing me in the last couple of years - I just haven’t been able to control it.  One week to the next - even one race to the next - I know that when I eat something I shouldn’t have eaten, I can feel how that makes me drag down the track.  How it affects how I run from one week to the next - so it takes a tremendous amount of discipline on my part, that quite frankly, I just don’t think I’m willing to do anymore.  It’s hard...

You’re just tired of the life of being a professional athlete...you think it’s too much work...

LW: I think it’s a lot of work

Do you think that some of that plays into the fact that you had so much success so early in your career...

LW: I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that I did it so easily coming into my career.  I didn’t plan on doing this.  I literally fell into it. My goal in 2004 was to win the NCAAs.  And by putting my best foot forward into trying to achieve that, I managed to run the second fastest time in the world at the National Championships, and immediately had to turn my focus onto the Olympics.  If you had asked me prior to this in 2004 about the Olympics - it wasn’t even on my list of things to do - it never entered my mind.  I didn’t know how it worked.  I didn’t know anything!  I literally fell into this sport, and like you said I started at the top and...

All I was doing was getting up in the morning, going to practice - doing what my coach told me to do for a workout, and I was fast!  And now - it’s constant physio - I mean - I just spent 5 days here in Monaco with you getting 3 hours of physio a day, just so I can finish one more race!  

It’s like - you can’t even eat a piece of bread!  It’s constant everything.  Just even to get to the same place where I was...it seems like if you improve all these things, you should be so much faster than you were back then, so how did it get so hard? 

That’s the part that I’m baffled about...

Do you think that maybe because you had so much success at a young age that you took it for granted a little bit?  

LW: I definitely took it for granted

Maybe you thought that you were working just as hard, but weren’t really?  I mean - you worked so hard to try to win the NCAA Championships, and then you were second-ranked in the world, then you went to the Olympic Games - you win a silver medal.  So it came so easy, and you were living the high life a little bit, so maybe there was almost a subconscious letting off of the gas pedal a little.  You didn’t really work quite as hard to continue that success as you did to achieve it...

We see it a lot for instance in the UK, where these young athletes have big successes as juniors, then ‘rewarded’ with big shoe contracts, and then fade into the ether, losing all motivation...did something like that play a part in your development?

LW: No

Ha - OK!

LW: Like I said, I think I took it for granted how good I was back then, but I don’t think I became complacent...

You think that maybe the sport caught up to you a little bit?

LW: Exactly.  I think I was ahead of the game because I was very talented, but every year we are getting advancements - in anything - sports medicine, sport science, all facets of life, but I think that’s what happened - I was ahead of that curve, and then people caught up and the playing field got a little more level, because of all the technology advancements, and I was just using talent....still doing the same thing.  So now I needed to use the ‘technology’ as well....I used as much as I was comfortable with, but it got to a point where that still wasn’t enough.

What were you comfortable with?

LW: Adding physio.  Constant physio.  But as an American athlete, there is a point where you need to draw the line.  Are you flying your physio everywhere you go?   Sanya Richards Ross is a good example.  She travels with her physio, her weights coach, her mom is her agent, her dad is the manager...it costs money to do all that stuff!  If you want to create the perfect environment for an athlete to stay at that optimal level, you have got to put that investment in...

So you think that is too difficult to do in the United States, though?

LW: It’s very difficult.  It comes at a really high price, and it’s really hard to wrap your mind around that price, when you used to just jump on that plane by yourself, and do the same thing.  I can understand the value in these things.  In all these people, and what they provide for me.  Having them there makes it so much easier for me to compete, but the question is how much do I really need them when I never had them there before?    

Well, clearly you are in a different phase of your career.  You can rely on talent when you’re a junior, or when you’re in college.  But when life begins getting a little more complicated, when other stresses begin to enter your life.  You’re looking for a place to live, relationship issues, financial worries, etc., it’s the athletes that can successfully negotiate through this transition stage - that can manage all these additional ‘outside influences’ that will continue to improve through the middle of their career.

LW: I cannot disagree with that.  I would say that I didn’t make the transition well. I’d be the first to admit that.  That might be  a more accurate way to describe me - that I didn’t transition well - more than I got complacent.  

When you are young, your limiting factor is genetic.  It doesn’t really matter who your coach is.  What your program is.  How you eat, etc. Your talent will dictate your results.  As you begin to develop, everybody starts to catch up - everyone has similar genetics - because now you are not just competing against the top college athletes, or the top juniors, but a whole host of athletes from a whole lot of years.  The top athletes from probably the last decade worth of top college athletes and top juniors.  Now you’re competing against grown people!  So now, your nutrition is an issue.  Your program becomes an issue.  Your coaching is important.  Your mechanics become important.  Your physio becomes an issue.  Your supplementation, etc.  Now it becomes important to stay on top of all these things, and I think this is where a lot of athletes now - in supplementation and nutrition especially - get a little bit lost.  They hit these plateaus in their careers, and they wonder - ‘hmm, I’m in a plateau...how do I break through?  What I used to do isn’t working anymore’.  And some make poor choices - not knowing any different.  



Supplements...

Now one thing that interests me about you is that you are one of the very rare athletes that instead of risking making a poor choice, decided to take a hard-line stance against supplementation.  You don’t take any supplements at all.  Not a vitamin pill.  Not whey protein.  Not creatine.  Fish oil.  Nothing!  I find this very interesting...

LW: I just have - like you said - the very minority perception that even the most safe of supplements are grey.  For an athlete, it is really hard to put yourself in a position where you have the knowledge where you are confident of what is going into your body.  I think it is worse for an athlete that started at the top.  I think there is a subconscious sense of entitlement that I can be a lazy athlete because everything was given to me on the front end, and I don’t want to do the work to find out whether the supplement is good, bad, or whatever.  I know and I understand that supplements can be good for you, and I know that there is a difference between a supplement and a drug, but I also think that there is a fine line between - this in-between grey area - that I’m not comfortable with.  Like - how do I know the difference from one to the next? Me - I don't have the specific intelligence to be able to say that this is a supplement, and this is a drug.  And this supplement is clean, and this will test me positive.  The intention of taking a supplement is to enhance my performance, and that is negative either way  - if you want to enhance your performance by using something other than what you can naturally do - how is there really a difference? 

Yeh - I know what you’re saying.  But for me, that’s a very black and white way of looking at it...and possibly that’s the best way.  I mean - if everybody looked at it that way, it would be pretty simple.  But unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in.  The world plays in shades of grey.  If you’re taking a 100% legal over-the-counter supplement, that has been batch-tested free from contaminated substances, then I don’t really see an issue with athletes taking them.  But you do...

Here’s the issue I have - when you’re competing against athletes that clearly are breaking the rules, for me you need to try to optimize all those things that we talked about before - your physio set-up, your coaching, your mechanics, your nutrition, and your supplementation.  Everything that you can do - in a legal manner - to try to level that playing field.  And in my opinion, it can be done.  

LW: There’s just a really fine line that I am just nervous about crossing...

So on the continuum between black and white - somewhere there is a line that crosses over.  And because you don’t really know where that line exists, you just choose to stay white.  Right?

LW: Right.  There is no way to be really knowledgeable enough to know. And if you’re taking something that is commerically available over the counter, can it really be that beneficial anyway?  And at the other end, if you are having something custom-made specifically for you, you are placing your trust in someone else...

Yeh - and that’s a big thing.  Especially with what came out two days ago with both Tyson and Asafa apparently putting faith in the wrong people.  Ato Boldon said that "an athlete is trusting of the person he is buying the supplements from, or the coach, or whoever is providing these supplements. When you listen to Tyson, he is saying he put his faith in someone and they let him down."  

And from all I know - and the people I have spoken with - Tyson is one of the good guys.  But not meaning to take any banned substances...putting your faith in the wrong person?  These are not viable excuses.  The athlete is always responsible.  Ato says that the athlete “doesn’t have a degree in pharmacology”.  And yes - most of them don’t.  

But ignorance is no excuse...

So in your opinion, what is an athlete to do? 

LW: You go to black and white, like me.

That’s the only answer for you?

LW: For me, it’s the only answer.  And like I said, most people disagree with me, and most athletes are willing to do what they need to do...

So it’s your career, and following the WADA code of ‘strict liability’, you are 100% responsible for what is in your body.  You will not listen to any advice - even if someone said to you “take this supplement.  It is batch-tested”.  You still say no.

LW: Yep

Now what about athletes that are not as hard-line as that?  Do you have any advice for them?  Maybe they don’t see it black and white.  They want to compete on the world-stage.  They want to be the next Lauryn Williams.  But they don’t want to go down the wrong road.  Do you have any advice for that athlete?

LW: Do as much due diligence as possible.  But ultimately understand that you are putting your trust in someone else’s hands.  Whether it be that over-the-counter supplement that is batch-tested, or whether it is your coach that says ‘take this’ - it is the same good intentions they may have, but when you accept something or buy something, you are counting on someone else to have done the right thing for you.  I just choose not to count on anyone but me.  I just don’t trust people that much...it’s just that simple. 

I think the bottom line in all this - what I take away from it - is you are 29 years old.  You have never taken a supplement.  You haven’t optimized your therapy situation.  You haven’t optimized your nutrition.  And you still have an Olympic gold medal, an Olympic silver medal, an NCAA title,  3 World Championship gold medals, and a PR of 10.88.  

I think that is the bottom line: it is possible - and this is for all those that say it is impossible to run sub-10 seconds as a man, and sub-11 seconds as a woman without performance enhancing drugs - it is possible to run very fast, and have an amazing career.  

You ran 10.88, and made all sorts of mistakes.  You ran 10.88 seven years ago.  So in that seven years, what has stopped you from running 10.68??  

So for me, it’s very encouraging.  If you look back at your career, you will see a lot of positives.  A young athlete can take a lot of positives from it.  They can see that they do not need to go down the roads that many others have.  That, with a little bit of talent, some hard work, and some effort in optimizing some of things that let you down in the middle of your career, they can run 10.6! 

I see it as very encouraging...

LW: I totally agree with that.  600%!!  And - with faster tracks, faster shoes, better conditions, and things like that, people are going to continue to get faster.  And it’s not unrealistic for people to run faster than 10.88.  And beyond.  Without taking a supplement at all.  If you are talented - if you believe you are talented.  Put your best foot forward to ensure that you achieve all that you can.  But I walk away from this knowing that I was great at this sport.  I was really, really good.  In my own head, that’s what I tell myself.  Because it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.  It only matters what I think.  So I can watch other girls on TV and say ‘yeh - she’s pretty fast.  She ran 10.6.  Good for her’.  But I could have ran 10.6 if I took the exact same thing she took, and probably faster.  In my own mind, I’m the best that has ever done it.  It doesn’t matter if everyone else believes that or not.  I did it to the best of my ability, and I feel if I would have done some of the things that some of these other people have done...if the playing field was level, that I’m the best athlete there is. I feel that is all that matters - that I feel like that.



Responsibilities...

Now - you said earlier that it’s hard in the United States - that you don’t really have the support - do you see a solution to this?  Is there an alternative for the up and coming athlete?  you see a lot of other countries for instance - the UK being a great example - that have a ton of Federation support, government support - from a medical perspective, physiotherapy perspective, nutrition, supplementation, coaching, strength training, etc., where in the US - outside of the OTCs, it is very limited.  Do you see any alternatives?  Any solutions?

LW: Yeh - I’d put a call to action for the government to start helping!  We are already the best in the world without their help, and we are struggling.  You shouldn’t hear stories of people who are on the Olympic team who were living in their car earlier in the year. That’s ridiculous!  So - an easy solution is for the government to find a little bit of money, and start to help Olympic hopefuls.  

But without that, what would be beneficial is a training center.  A real track that is for professional track and field athletes.  With a weight-room that is for professional track and field athletes.  With a physio there that is for professional track and field athletes. In a climate that is warm enough for athletes to be able to train year-round - outdoors.  Because that is the season where we have the biggest potential, and the season that is most important.  There is no indoor Olympics!  With information about nutrition, supplementation, etc.  Availability to batch-tested approved supplements.  So if nothing else, if you choose to take this supplement - which even though I would choose not to - at least you can be pretty sure that you’re not going to test positive. And the facilities that are amazing, and you have that opportunity to be at the one-stop shop, where you can be the best that you can be.  That’s the best alternative.  If an athlete can find that place, and it be affordable for them, that’s when we will start to see athletes optimizing their potential. 

You sit on the Board for the Track and Field Athletes Association (TFAA).  Can you tell me about that?  What is the goal of this organization?

LW: The TFAA was created to give a voice to track and field athletes.  Two of our biggest downfalls are that we are not educated, and we don’t stand together.  We are fed information from our agents, from our phsyios, from our coaches, and we count on them - and it’s really hard to professionalize a sport when kids are coming out of school at age 20, and you’re looking at your coaches, managers, and agents as father figures - as respected elders, but you forget sometimes that they work for you.  And I think it is a really hard thing to balance that exchange.  Because you need to rely on their education when you come out, but in the interest of professionalism, you need to educate yourself, in such a way that you’re not dependent on these people.  They are dependent upon you.   

But we don’t educate ourselves well enough, and we don’t unite well enough to exercise our collective power.  Instead, we run around the circuit, as much as we can - by ourselves - in our individual events.  It just makes it seem like that all that matters to you is yourself.  When I think that you know that it could be much better if we were all doing this together.  We could be making more money, for example, if everyone got together.  Like, your agent tells you what you’re going to get, what your appearance fee is, and there is no way to compare it to your colleagues whether it is a good number or not.  You are just forced to take it and go with it.  Even if you feel you are worth more, you still take it.  

What choice do you have?

Do you not think that it is not a part of an athlete’s responsibility to learn some of these things?  To educate themselves a bit more on supplements, on nutrition, on appearance fees, etc. 

LW: Yes - it is very much the athlete’s responsibility!

The athlete has strict liability for what goes in the their bodies.  In the same manner, they are responsible for all these other things. That’s what you are saying?

Yes.  We show up as kids with a sense of entitlement, because people are throwing money at us - telling us we are wonderful, telling us we are so great, and you feel like everyone else should do all the work, and that’s what needs to switch.  You need to come into this understanding that you need to do some work.  your work is not just run fast, jump high, throw far.  It is knowing about what supplements go into your body, it is knowing about good appearance fees, knowing how to get from one place to the other, knowing who to call if your flight gets cancelled! Knowing how to book a flight.  How to take a train.  Simple things, that we are not taught...

So how are you going about doing this?  How are you going about educating the athletes, or are you still in early days where you are still trying to figure out the best vehicle in which to do it from?

LW: I think the best way to do it is a life skills program in the colleges.  In track and field, we are not coming out of high school.  So the responsibility...

Do you think the NCAA has a responsibility in this?

LW: ...I definitely think the NCAA has a responsibility in.  And I think they are remiss in not recognizing it at this point.  And I know they have been approached about it.  Many times.  But they don’t want to take any responsibility for it...The NFL and the NBA - because they’re revenue sports I guess - they have gotten involved, but for track and field, I guess they don’t see the potential...

I mean - what’s the point in all of this compliance stuff if you’re not really trying to educate the athletes?  Educate them that there is more to this than books.  You need to be prepared for life.  Having life skills is a very important part of being a professional athlete. Sport is almost like having another major...you go to school to get an education, but at the very least, you are minoring in sports, and there are some life skills that you need to be taught through your particular sport. 

And they are failing miserably at that!





10 comments:

  1. I met her at the Boston Indoor about six years ago. What wonderful personality, sweet, intelligent. One of the good ones. It was a pleasure following her career. I know she'll be successful in whatever career path she takes.
    Thanks Lauryn!!

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    1. agreed! thanks for reading...and your kind words - I'll pass them along to Lauryn

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  2. I liked her before, after this interview I like her more. Really great stuff. I totally agree with her view about supplements. If you don't have the knowledge, don't take it. I also share her view about life skills and athletes education. And she is obviously the true 2004 olympic champion. There's is no doubt nesterenko was on PED that day.

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    1. agreed Fabien...I hope that she gets that deserved individual Olympic Gold...

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  3. This may be harsh but, "weight problems" is a factor here??? Someone might want to refresh Ms. Williams on the life of a common day-to-day "worker" as compared to that of a professional athlete (in ANY sport). A great many would gladly suffer the diet restrictions, if you'd even call them that (more like REQUIREMENTS), just to cruise through the comparitively EASY life of an athlete. Absolutely NO sympathy here. I say: clean yourself up properly, you still have years left.

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    1. it's easy for some Dave...a little more difficult for others. The life of a professional athlete (at least in T&F at the non-superstar level) is not near as glamorous as people may believe. It is the right of anyone to choose what they would like to do. Lauryn feels that the life of a track is no longer for her - she's perfectly within her rights to make that decision.

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    2. It's not a job you can do if you're not 100% motivated. You need to have fun doing it and have a burning fire inside you.

      I'm not a pro athletes but even as an amateur, if the fun is not there anymore it's impossible to get motivated and be at 100%. Of course you can still race and perform at a decent level, but when you're a former olympic champion, it may be hard to find a motivation. I guess if she has no fun anymore, then it is perfectly reasonable to stop and do something else. Also when you're running against people who's best friend is Mark Block, it may be hard to find a motivation...

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    3. Of course she is; but I feel that she has just a bit too much blame on entities other than numero uno (as far as T&F goes). Also, I know nothing of her education, skills, or career interests/qualifications - maybe she IS headed for an easier life.

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  4. She has a degree in Finance or something similar as far as I know, and I know she will succeed at anything she puts her mind to. I met her this year in Lausanne - and she is humble, sweet, intelligent, and a genuinely nice person. God bless you Lauryn.

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  5. There's a lot of whining in her article about other entities and how they all should be doing something.
    Olympic Training Centers -- heck I just was visiting a gorgeous OTC in Chula Vista, CA .. pro athletes are welcome, but I know are not given exactly a free pass --since they do make decent/good money as opposed to a heck of a lot of other athletes {try being an archer, field hockey player, etc}. The reality is that pros, such as herself, want an OTC dropped 5 miles from their house at no cost to them. Let's be real -- an OTC isn't being placed in podunk,TX or podunk, Iowa. Either deal with where you live and pay the freight, or MOVE!
    NCAA -- the problems for the NCAA to monitor college athletics are many. The main problem is that the universities want the NCAA as an entity to set up certain things like championships. On the other hand, the universities insure that the NCAA doesn't get real investigative power such as being able to subpoena, require testing, require people to answer questions, etc. In essence, the NCAA is a university created sham designed to make people think that university athletics programs are all squeaky clean.
    Supplements -- oh pleaaaaze - Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell, etc want you to believe that they were set up or given bad products. If so, then they should be able to name names, and name the product(s). The problem is that they are trying to play the Barry Bonds game -"Oh my trainer was just putting this clear item and this cream item on me, I trusted there was nothing to this" -- Hmm, then you thought that your off-the-chart muscle increase was natural?? Tyson and Asafa, among others previously, can try to say this but the odds really say this is a cover story that they hope is believed.


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