ROAD TO RIO | ‘Miracle’ would lift Kelly Williams to Olympic team

ONE YEAR TO RIO From fencing to water polo, follow ASN Olympic hopefuls.
ROAD TO RIO From fencing to water polo, follow ASN Olympic hopefuls.

Kelly Rexroad Williams stands a shade under 5 feet and weighs 109 pounds.

Yet she can lift 198 pounds (90 kg) over her head.

Williams is an Olympic weightlifter, middle school teacher and mother to a 10-year-old boy. At 38, she should be over the hill. Instead, she has kept pushing the rock up it.

A four-time U.S. world championship team member, Williams is lifting better than she has in her entire career – one that started at age 15. However, the two-time national champion has yet to make an Olympic team.

Fifth at last year’s nationals, her weightlifting numbers are comparable to the top women she’ll be competing against in the 48 kg weight class at the U.S. Olympic weightlifting trials in Salt Lake City on Sunday.

But if she does not qualify for Rio, this will likely be Williams’s final meet.

Because the U.S. women only qualified three total spots for all seven weight classes for Rio, along with other limitations, Williams admits it would take “a miracle” for her to make the team.

“I’m just leaving it all on the table,” said Williams, who graduated from Kennesaw State with dual degrees in health/physical education and exercise health science.

Williams is OK with that.

“I would like to have another kiddo,” she said. “You can’t be pregnant and train.”

On a week when First Lady Michelle Obama presided over a 100-days-to-go pep rally in New York City and mosquito-repellent Olympic uniforms were unveiled, Williams quietly contemplated the likely end of a long stop-and-go career.

Her story isn’t unusual for the scores of Olympic hopefuls not named Michael Phelps, Allyson Felix or Gabby Douglas.

In a Road-to-Rio year, we hear mostly the success stories. Rarely do we hear about people like Williams: talented, hard-working, grinding it out in anonymity (and sometimes near poverty). Their road ends here.

Most won’t hear the voice of a longtime coach and mentor go silent for a few seconds as he composes himself.

“I tell you what, Kelly Rexroad …” said John Coffee, before he had to stop, then start again. “She’s probably done more with what she started with than anybody I had. She stayed with it.”

Coffee’s Gym, where John Coffee has overseen the careers of more than 100 female national-caliber weightlifters will have seven women competing in the trials this weekend.

Many of them, like Williams, have experienced Coffee’s remarkable generosity. To this day, he pays for motel rooms for his lifters at competitions. He dug into his own pockets for rent on the townhouse Williams lived in while training at Kennesaw State. He said he has burned through much of a modest inheritance, but shrugs off a compliment.

“You can’t take it with you,” he said.

“He has a heart of gold and he wants to help you,” Williams said. “The least I can do is help his team get as many points” as possible at trials.


Williams was a high school cheerleader who discovered weightlifting when a teammate’s sister – weightlifting pioneer Robin Byrd – encouraged her.  Barely able to lift a bar when she started, Williams caught on quickly, qualifying for four junior world championships, once winning a bronze medal, and setting national records only recently broken.

At the senior level, Williams won national titles in 2011 and 2014 and made four world championship teams.

“The Olympics is not all there is,” Coffee said, pointing out world championship fields can be more competitive because countries get to send more athletes.

For years, Williams’s daily training was squeezed in after a full day teaching middle school health and PE and after her son, Rex, is tucked in for the night. Her current coach, Zygmunt Smalcerz, sends her workouts from U.S. weightlifting headquarters in Colorado Springs.

Frequent injuries, pregnancy, a chronic knee condition that limited her lifting and a divorce had Williams making multiple comebacks over nearly a quarter century. Yet she kept picking herself – and those crushingly big weights — up.

“I’ve done this a really long time,” she said. “This will be my 103rd competition…I’m just grateful for the opportunity. I’m just enjoying it.”

She and husband Caleb will both compete in Salt Lake, Caleb at 69 kg. (The men have an outside chance to qualify one Olympic spot in June.) The couple plans to continue lifting in master’s events and run Caleb’s CrossFit gym in the area. She’ll continue to teach.

If there are no miracles on Sunday, Williams said the timing’s right to retire.

“Going into this, I have no pressure on me,” said Williams. “To me, I’m in the best place.”


Ivy Leaguers populate Olympic rowing berths

oly-rowing-logoRower Gevvie Stone, who recently completed medical school, was named to her second Olympic team. Four other Rio qualifiers came from Ivy League schools at rowing’s Olympic team trials in Sarasota, Fla., on April 24.

Stone, a 2007 Princeton grad who attended med school at Tufts University, qualified in the women’s single sculls. Stone, who will begin her residency after the Rio Games, is considered an Olympic medal contender after placing fourth at last year’s world championships and winning silver and bronze in 2015 World Cup competitions.

In claiming her Olympic berth, Stone finished more than seven seconds ahead of runner-up Stesha Carle.

Others winning at Olympic trials include Ken Jurkowski in men’s single sculls. Jurkowski, a 2003 Cornell grad and two-time Olympian, must still qualify the Olympic boat class later this month at a regatta in Lucerne, Switzerland, by finishing in the top three.

Andrew Campbell Jr. (Harvard ’14) and Joshua Konieczny (Dartmouth ’13) qualified for their first Olympic berths in the men’s lightweight double sculls. Princeton’s Kate Berko, 32, made her first Olympics by teaming with Devery Karz, 28, in the women’s lightweight double sculls.

Houston coach calls for relay change in track and field

Athletics-pictogramUniversity of Houston coach Leroy Burrell said U.S. track and field leadership needs to change after a botched handoff by the top U.S. sprinters in the men’s 4X100m relay at Saturday’s Penn Relays cast a familiar sense of foreboding as the Games.

U.S. track and field has been plagued by poor baton exchanges in Olympics and world championships in past years.

On Saturday, a muffed exchange between Tyson Gay and Isiah Young prior to the final leg blew the U.S. team’s lead and resulted in a third-place finish for the team that included Mike Rodgers and Justin Gatlin. The team finished third behind Jamaica and the U.S. No. 2 team of Sean McLean, Wallace Spearman, Caleiso Newman and Remontay McLain.

According to the Associated Press, in a TV interview Burrell criticized U.S. coaches, saying “a bit of a regime change” might be needed and athletes should be calling for it.

“Well, I think we’ve got to put our team together a little earlier, possibly,” said Burrell, former 100m world record-holder and part of the 1992 Olympic champion 4×100 team with Carl Lewis, Dennis Mitchell and Mike Marsh. “We’ve had the same coaches working with these guys for many years, and we’ve had failure after failure. So it’s possible that, you know, it might be time for a bit of a regime change with the leadership.”

Lewis, a coach under Burrell in Houston, was also critical of USATF coaches last month.

“I think the athletes have to be the catalysts that make that happen,” Burrell said. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to get the stick around. I saw thousands of relay teams (at the Penn Relays) — maybe not thousands, but hundreds of relay teams get it around. But the professionals can’t. That’s just not good for our sport.”



Above: Photo courtesy Doug Anderson
Middle: Photo courtesy Kelly Rexroad Williams

Meri-Jo Borzilleri

Meri-Jo Borzilleri is a freelance writer based in Bellingham, Wash.