In a tiny, out-of-the-way gym hidden among the hills on the outskirts of Cal’s campus, Toni-Ann Williams enthusiastically drags a humongous mat to the balance beam area before getting to work. She carries her own vault springboard to run through several repetitions.
Her upgraded floor exercise needs to be just right beginning this weekend at the World Gymnastics Championships in Scotland, where Jamaica’s hopes of making history by qualifying the country’s first Olympic gymnast are riding on her every high-flying flip and acrobatic twist. Meanwhile, Williams’ college teammates are working on routines they’re months away from performing in competition.
“When I first started everyone had told me, ‘You’re the first gymnast to compete for Jamaica,’ and I never realized — you’re the first gymnast for an entire country,” Williams said. “I never realized how big that was. I never allowed myself to think that highly of myself before, but I do recognize it now. It helps me stay humble and keeps me going through this crazy journey.”
The 19-year-old Williams, the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year last season for the University of California, realizes that regardless of whether she reaches the Rio Games next August, she has done plenty to boost the sport in her parents’ homeland where megastar sprinter Usain Bolt is the most well-known and popular Olympian.
Williams’ mother, Marlene, has already envisioned the moment many times: Her daughter walking into the opening ceremonies less than a year from now alongside Bolt and the rest of the Jamaican delegation.
Toni-Ann doesn’t dwell on that.
“When I was younger, I definitely did, but now it feels more tangible, so I can’t allow myself to get ahead of myself or I will go insane,” she said.
Because Jamaica is largely still discovering gymnastics and it remains underfunded, Williams hopes her platform will bring positive attention to the sport. Jamaica will host the Caribbean championships next month.
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Williams has been there only a couple of times. Her mother moved to the U.S. in 1990 and her father about four years earlier, and Williams was born in Maryland.
The Jamaica Amateur Gymnastics Association covers its monthly overhead expenses with assistance from the country’s sports development foundation, while the athletes often must earn much of the rest themselves through fundraising and by landing sponsorships — which they received to help with the trip to Scotland.
“Most of the athletes have been working hard to fund themselves. We are very grateful,” said Nicole Grant-Brown, President of the Jamaica Amateur Gymnastics Association.
She is confident Williams is leading the way.
Still, there’s a daunting path ahead to reach Rio. A strong showing at worlds, going through Nov. 1 in Glasgow, is just the first step for any of the Jamaicans to qualify.
The six-gymnast Jamaican contingent — that’s all the federation can afford — is dependent on an athlete qualifying for Rio first through a strong finish at the World Championships, and all as individuals because the country didn’t enter enough international meets to send a team.
Based on ranking and a complicated system that excludes the Olympic-qualifying teams from worlds, Williams or the others must be among the top 40 to reach next spring’s Olympic Test Event in Rio de Janeiro for a chance at an Olympic berth.
In a unique twist, her college coach will be along every step of the way.
The university is allowing Justin Howell to coach Cal’s student-athletes while simultaneously serving as Jamaica’s head coach. With Howell now gone for two weeks to coach Williams and Jamaica’s other athletes, his wife and associate head coach Liz Crandall-Howell is running things back in the Bay Area for the Golden Bears.
Williams is typically in the gym for a couple of hours training on her own before her three-hour Cal practice. She is taking just eight units this semester — about half of a regular course load — during her chase of an Olympic bid.
She has concentrated more on her nutrition and also exercise outside the gym through extra spinning sessions for cardio, and weight training.
“She’s going to have to do her job,” Crandall-Howell said. “She has a very high level of difficulty and with a high degree of difficulty comes more risks.”
Williams has gone from three to four tumbling passes on floor for Worlds, where she will be joined by Jamaican teammates including her younger sister Maya.
And there’s no pressure on the home front. Her mother is already beyond thrilled at what Williams has accomplished in a short time, especially considering the teen was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis at age 14. It flared up during the Pac-12 championships earlier this year and caused Williams to shake during the meet.
The Olympics would make her many challenges worth it all.
“That would be one of the most amazing moments in my life, just to know she had done something for my country,” said her mother Marlene, active in the Jamaican gymnastics movement. “We sleep, eat and walk Usain Bolt. And at some point in this life we are going to sleep, walk and dream about gymnastics in Jamaica also.”
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