Olympic dreams swapped for NCAA title
This was supposed to be Kayla Williams' Olympic moment.
After becoming the first American gymnast to win the vault title at the World Championships in 2009 as a 16-year-old, the former Nitro resident was poised to become one of America's darlings at this week's 2012 Summer Games in London.
Williams' career path abruptly took as many twists and turns as a Yurchenko double full vault, but in the end the 2011 Huntington High graduate stuck the landing as usual.
After her elite career came to a sudden end months after bursting onto the scene at the World Championships, Williams signed with Alabama in May 2010.
And this past spring the 5-foot-2 powerhouse realized another dream when she played a key role as a true freshman in helping the Crimson Tide capture their second straight NCAA gymnastics championship in April in Los Angeles.
"It's an amazing feeling,'' said the 19-year-old Williams of winning a team national title during a recent phone interview from Tuscaloosa, Ala. "You can't really compare it to any other accomplishment. You didn't do it by yourself.
"You have this whole team backing you up and you're making the whole team's dream come true. All my other accomplishments are great and wonderful, but you get to celebrate and relive the memories all over again with these 17 other girls.''
Williams recognizes that she has accomplished more than she ever thought possible, even if her red, white and blue aspirations never materialized.
"I think that's going to happen with every Olympics,'' she said of pondering what might have been. "I think it will always be that kind of thing, 'I wish I were doing it.'
"I have to remember how blessed I am to be competing for the University of Alabama and the career I have. Not too many gymnasts walk around with a World gold medal. I'm about to get a big 'ol ring in the fall.''
Williams said she is at peace with how her career has turned out.
"Even with these girls on the Olympic team, they can tell you right now it's a day-to-day thing,'' she said. "Things change. It's not necessarily going to be a dream come true. I took it all in stride.
"Ultimately my goal was to compete in college and get a college education and do a sport I love. I'm happy where I am. Now I'm just enjoying college gymnastics and cheering Team USA when the Olympics are on. I'm going to watch the Olympics and cheer for them and not dwell on the fact I'm not there.''
Williams said she thinks the U.S. has a good chance to win it all in London.
"I've known each one of those girls for a while now,'' she said. "I'm so excited for them and what they have ahead of them. They're such talented girls and mentally strong. I envision Team USA coming back with a gold.''
Williams' rise from Junior Olympic champion to world vault champion was meteoric.
She began 2009 as a Level 10 gymnast, which is below elite level in USA Gymnastics. In May, she won the Junior Olympic National Championships in the all-around, vault and floor exercise, and silver on balance beam.
After that, Williams received an exclusive invitation to a developmental camp at U.S. team coordinators' Marta and Bela Karolyi's training ranch in New Waverly, Texas, after Steve Penny, the president of USA Gymnastics, saw Williams' performance on the floor and vault.
At a meet in June, Williams qualified for elite status, which is the level at which Olympic gymnasts compete.
Williams then won the vault and floor exercise and placed fifth in the all-around and balance beam during the CoverGirl Classic in late July, qualifying her for the U.S. Championships, the first West Virginian to do so since Olympic gold-medalist and Fairmont native Mary Lou Retton in 1984.
She won the vault and placed seventh in the all-around at the U.S. nationals, then attended two selection camps at the USA Gymnastics Women's National Team Training Center in Huntsville, Texas. She was one of 10 gymnasts invited to the second and final camp and was among four chosen to represent the U.S. at the World Championships.
Williams' stock was soaring after becoming the first U.S. woman to win a Junior National championship and a world title in the same year, a feat that even Retton never pulled off.
"It was such a hectic time,'' Williams said. "I wasn't even thinking about what I was going to have for breakfast that day. I don't think I was thinking [about the Olympics]. Back then I don't think I was aware of what I was capable of.''
But by early 2010 Williams had a falling out with her home gym, Bozhi's Gym Nest in Huntington, and was left without a place to train for several months until finding a spot at the Cincinnati Gymnastics Academy. She then suffered torn ligaments in her foot and decided to give up on elite competition and focus on college.
"Things just weren't coming together,'' said Williams. "I just wasn't going to be ready. I made what I saw as a responsible decision and what was going to be in my best interest to get ready for college. I haven't looked back on it since.''
Williams checked off another goal in April when she competed on the vault and balance beam for Alabama during the team portion of the national championships, earning a 9.9 score on each discipline. The vault score was a season-best effort while her balance beam routine tied her season-high.
"It was so intense,'' she said. "You can feel the intensity building as the days go on. It's tough. It's definitely pressure. Ever since I was little I loved those pressure situations.
"You have your teammates screaming their heads off for you. That's what makes it fun and that's why people like to watch college gymnastics. Everybody wants [the championship], but only one team is going to win it. I loved it.''
Williams said it wasn't easy cracking the lineup of a defending national champion.
"Obviously growing up I was more of an all-around gymnast,'' she said. "I'm typically pretty strong on all four events, but we have such a strong team and depth ... it's hard. It's competitive every day. I'm really looking forward to giving more in the years to come.''
While Williams doesn't rule out a return to elite competition, she isn't actively pursuing that goal anymore. She stayed in Tuscaloosa this summer for voluntary workouts and is also helping out with at camps in the area in addition to Cincinnati. Williams also helps with a local gymnastics team near the Tuscaloosa campus.
"Most gymnasts take care of most of that business before they come to college,'' she said of chasing Olympic glory. "College is the final four years of gymnastics. I'm not going to say it's impossible. Do I see it in my future right now? No.
"Could it happen? Yeah. I wish people understood what a full-time job college athletics is. You have classes, practice, a lot of community service. In the summer, volunteer work. It's a never-ending job. My entire and absolute focus is on this team. In a few years, who knows? As of right now, I don't see that.''
Williams has already made enough memories to last a lifetime.
"I'm going to wear that [championship] ring around campus,'' she said. "We're going to be able to look back and remember. At Worlds it was such an individual thing and not many people share in that memory.''