EUGENE, Ore. – Kendell Williams’ interest in track and field began on a Fourth of July night in Rome, Georgia. She was seven and her older brother Devon was eight. The Williams family had made the trip to Rome from their hometown of Marietta for Devon’s baseball game and decided to stay afterward for a fireworks show. During some down time, her brother and some teammates decided to engage in a bit of friendly competition.
“The boys started racing each other and I was like, ‘I wanna race, too!’” Williams said of that night. She proceeded to outrun all of the boys except her brother, who, now 20, is a talented track and field athlete in his own right.
“Kendell was a girly-girl who played Barbies under the bleachers during her brother’s baseball games,” said Blane Williams, Kendell’s father and coach for a local track club, who trained her up through high school. “The boys were racing, so when she took off her sandals and out-ran all of these older boys – except her brother – we knew we had to find a track program for her. She took to track right away and continued to develop.”
Williams started out by picking up the hurdles, then several field events, including the high jump and long jump.
“(After that), the pentathlon made sense,” she said. “Then that turned into the heptathlon.”
The indoor pentathlon consists of five events: the 60-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, long jump, and 800 meters. The women’s heptathlon includes the 100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200, long jump, javelin throw and 800.
By the time Williams graduated from Kell High School, she had set the U.S. high school record in the heptathlon (5,578 points) with an eighth-place finish at the 2012 IAAF World Junior Championships in Barcelona.
“I rarely know a record going in,” Williams said of her record-breaking performance in Barcelona. “I try to do my best and if a record falls, it falls. They totaled the points up and I had broken the record. I was surprised and happy.”
Georgia prevails in recruiting battle
Williams went on to become the first prep athlete to break 4,000 points in the indoor pentathlon and set a national high school record (4,068 points) in the event at the 2013 New Balance National Championships at the Armory in New York City.
She won the heptathlon at the 2013 USA Junior Championships in Des Moines, Iowa (5,481) last summer, shortly after leading Kell to a second-place finish in the Georgia 5A state championships. Williams finished her high school career with eleven state titles. She was named the 2013 Gatorade National Girls Track & Field Athlete of the Year, after winning the statewide equivalent of that title three times.
During her senior season, top track programs from around the country were eager to get Williams on their team rosters for the following year. The recruitment process was long and intense, but in April of 2013, Williams signed her letter of intent with the University of Georgia.
“She has an outstanding presence as an athlete. You can see she’s not an average athlete,” said Georgia track and field coach Wayne Norton. The first time he saw Williams compete, she was a high school freshman getting ready to run a hurdles race. “I saw her and asked, ‘Who is that woman?’ Not girl, because she had this physical appearance where you knew she was special,” Norton said.
Recruiting Williams was no easy task.
“It was a two-year project … but worth it,” said Georgia multi-event coach Petros Kyprianou, who traveled to Barcelona to watch her compete in 2012.
Kyprianou’s talent as a coach, and the fact that her brother, Devon, was already a member of the Georgia track and field team, both factored into Williams’ decision to sign with the school.World junior contender
Williams wasted no time in displaying her talents this year. In her first collegiate indoor pentathlon, she set the U.S. junior record with 4,302 points.
She placed second in that event at the SEC championships with 4,282 points on Thursday, behind Mississippi State’s Erica Bougard, the reigning NCAA champion, and an IAAF World Championships qualifier last summer. Bougard tallied 4,458 points, the eighth-best score in collegiate history.
Williams has a long season ahead of her, but Norton said she’s used to that type of workload. He added that she’s on track to peak for the IAAF World Junior Championships, July 22-27, at historic Hayward Field.
In her current training regimen, Kyprianou has Williams focused on the hurdles and is helping her improve her consistency in the jumps.
“She has a good PR in high school, but that fluctuates a lot,” Kyprianou said. “(The goal) is to get her consistent.”
Both Kyprianou and Norton were quick to say how coachable Williams is as an athlete. Kyprianou referred to her as an amazing person with a very positive outlook, an attitude he credits her parents with instilling in her.
“She smiles almost all the time,” Kyprianou said. “She’s involved in different societies and fundraising and helping others. That’s more important than talent. I’ve coached a lot of talented athletes in the past.”
“She’s a teenage girl and a good student who happens to be a good athlete,” Norton added. “She’s easy to deal with and get along with because she’s a person first.”
If Williams reaches her goal of “doing her best,” she’ll be a medal contender at the IAAF World Junior Championships this summer, and she intends on bringing that good-natured mentality with her.
As a veteran, Williams has this advice for newcomers.
“Just relax and have fun with it,” she said. “You already made it through trials and have been training well to get to that point, so just have fun with it. That’s what I plan to do.”