If you saw Lauryn Williams on the street, you wouldn’t think she was the reigning world champion in the 100-meter sprint. But the 5-foot-3, 127-pound Williams has always been faster than bigger, taller athletes; in elementary school, she outran boys five and six years her senior. “That’s when I started to know I had talent,” the 23-year-old Williams says. At 20, she won the silver medal in the 100-meter dash at the 2004 Athens Olympics. The next year she earned gold at the World Championships, a title she’ll defend this August in Osaka, Japan. So how is it that someone so small can run so fast?
Because she had short legs and an unorthodox technique, Williams wasn’t heavily recruited out of high school. But the women’s track coach at the University of Miami, Amy Deem, saw her potential. The two have worked together ever since. “She had frequency,” Deem says, referring to Williams’s high stride rate. Most elite female sprinters take about 4.6 steps per second; Williams takes 4.9. What separates Williams from the pack is her ability to get her feet off the ground quickly. “The difference between not making the Olympic team in the sprints and making the team is a ground time of less than a hundredth of a second,” says Ralph Mann, who studies runners’ biomechanics for USA Track and Field. Williams reminds Mann of five-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson. “The coaches call them freaks,” Mann says, “because their turnover is simply out there.”
“If I want to decrease my ground time, I want to get very, very powerful so I can explode off the ground,” Mann says. So in the off-season, Williams builds strength. Squats and bench presses prepare her to burst out of the blocks and drive through each step. As the season approaches, she shifts to lighter weights to work on quickness. Her muscles, like those of most speed athletes, have a high percentage of fast-twitch fibers, which contract the muscles faster. “The slow-twitch fibers take longer to reach their peak tension, whereas the faster ones can peak really fast,” says Dr. Bob Adams, the head of USA Track and Field’s sports medicine and science committee.
Power is only a starting point. What’s essential is “the coordination of the firing of muscles at the right time in the right order in the right pattern,” says Lisa Kearns, Williams’s physical therapist. In a sport where hundredths of a second separate the best athletes from average ones, runners must have flawless technique and perfect balance. “The center of the body must be stable so there isn’t wasted motion,” Kearns adds. “The more they’re able to stabilize through their pelvis and their core, the more efficiently the legs will respond to the messages being sent by the brain.” When Williams was younger, she ran in an inefficient crouch. “She didn’t have a lot of what a track coach would call ‘front-side mechanics,’ ” Deem says. “Her hips were rotated back, she was leaning forward when she ran and everything was happening behind her.” Deem taught her to stand up straighter and keep her center of mass in line with her hips. This has lengthened her stride. “We’ve shifted her hips underneath her,” Deem says, “so that she can bring the knee and the leg through in a better range of motion.”
Even the best sprinters in the world slow down during the last 10 to 15 meters of the 100-meter dash. They just decelerate less than their competitors do. Williams trains at longer distances to develop stamina. The 100, she says, seems easy after sprinting for 250 meters: “That’s far. I call it the marathon.” Most sprinters are now so specialized that they have trouble at different distances.
None of this matters, though, without the requisite mental toughness, which would seem like a given but isn’t. A sprinter’s “talent is very fragile, and it requires tremendous dedication,” says Ralph Vernacchia, a performance consultant who has worked with the United States Olympic track team. “Williams is the kind of athlete who thrives on the big-race.” Deem says, “She’s, very competitive, and that’s what sets her apart in a lot of ways.” Well, that and pride. “My thing at the Olympics was, I would be on national TV,” Williams says. “I just couldn’t beout there losing with everybody in the whole country watching.”