KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Lauryn Williams is a bobsledding rookie on the brink of winning a gold medal. She could make all kinds of Olympic history Wednesday if she and driver Elana Meyers hold on to first place.
But Williams doesn’t want to get ahead of herself, especially when she’s going 80 mph. She did that when she hit the brakes improperly Sunday and almost crashed out of the Winter Games.
Miami’s Williams, pusher of the U.S. team’s No. 1 sled, jolted the custom-built 400-pound carriage into a wall at the end of a practice run. It was not a fender bender. The nose was smashed, forcing BMW mechanics who helped design the sleek racing machine to make major repairs.
“The sled was totaled, and they had to stay up all night rebuilding the steering mechanism,” said Meyers, who hurt her neck and head in the collision. “That hit was the hardest I’ve ever taken.”
Yet Meyers and Williams were smiling Tuesday as they recalled the mishap. A track record did wonders for their morale. They and their sled recovered in time to rocket down the icy curves of the Sanki Sliding Center course in 57.26 seconds in the first of four heats (two on Tuesday, two more on Wednesday). Their combined two-run time of 1:54.89 put them .23 seconds ahead of Canadians Kaillie Humphries and Heather Moyse, the defending gold medalists, and .56 ahead of teammates Jamie Greubel and Aja Evans.
“I think the accident was a bonding moment,” Williams said. “Elana didn’t yell at me. She just took a deep breath and handled it like a pro. It was my fault, but to see someone have that much faith in you really makes you feel that camaraderie.”
The irrepressible Williams is always finding silver linings. In her new career as a bobsled brakeman she doesn’t whine about how cold and obscure the sport is. She jokes about how her thin-bloodedness makes her run faster so she can get back inside.
She and Meyers also set a start record of 5.12 seconds in the second heat, breaking the record of 5.13 they set in the first heat, marks due in large part to Williams’ power and pedigree as a world-class sprinter.
Before she took up bobsledding six months ago at the suggestion of track and field friend Lolo Jones, Williams was known for her fast times in the summer. She was Olympic silver medalist in the 100-meter dash at the 2004 Athens Olympics and won gold in helping the U.S. 400-meter relay team qualify for its triumph at the 2012 London Games. Williams, an NCAA champ at the University of Miami, is also a three-time world championship gold medalist.
Williams, ready to retire from track in July, decided to try her legs at bobsled, a sport that has welcomed a host of former sprinters, jumpers, heptathletes, hurdlers like Jones and Willie Davenport, football players like Brian Shimer and Herschel Walker and softball players like Meyers.
At 5-3, Williams is short for a bobsledder, but she makes up for it with her explosiveness off the block.
“Start speed is the killer, and that’s why we have these track stars behind us,” said Meyers, who explained that humidity from a steady rain made the covered track “a little sticky” on Tuesday. “I made a few mistakes, we’ve got some work to do, but we’re excited to attack.”
Williams said the nervousness she felt all day harkened back to her prime.
“When I got on that line, I knew something good was going to happen because I was jumping out of my skin, and that’s a feeling I hadn’t had for a while in track and field,” she said.
Williams, 30, adapted to bobsledding so quickly she even surpassed Jones, who is most famous for tripping on the penultimate hurdle at the 2008 Beijing Olympics when she was in the lead of the sprint, and for her photo shoots. Jones placed fourth at the 2012 Olympics. Jones and No. 3 U.S. driver Jazmine Fenlator were in 11th place at the halfway point, 1.84 seconds out of first.
“I knew we were going to have to fight,” said a frustrated Jones, who went on a glutton’s diet to add 25 pounds in the fall. She lobbied for the No. 1 slot, and her celebrity has definitely raised the profile of the sport, but Williams has more burst in the 30 meters that push athletes run before they jump into the back of the sled.
Jones is still looking for her first Olympic medal while Williams could become just the second person to win gold in both Winter and Summer Games, joining American Eddie Eagan, who was a boxer in 1920 and a bobsledder in 1932. Only four athletes have won medals of any color at both Winter and Summer Games.
But Williams insists she didn’t do this to make a trivia list. No one makes the sacrifices — physical, financial, personal — to be a bobsledder unless they find a deeper satisfaction in sliding down a mile-long chute.
“Any time I step on any track, whether it’s ice or some other surface, my goal is to win,” Williams said.
The teamwork of bobsledding was a revelation after her years as a solo sprinter with occasional relay duty. Some veterans taught her so well, they didn’t make the team.
“I didn’t come here for fame or glory or to get rich,” she said. “I did it to help my teammates. And I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the ride.”