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Olympic hurdler Shermaine Williams leaving again, this time for Rio

Shermaine Williams heading to Rio

Shermaine Williams, a former Johnson C. Smith University student will be a 100-meter hurdler for Jamaica at the Rio Olympics.
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Shermaine Williams, a former Johnson C. Smith University student will be a 100-meter hurdler for Jamaica at the Rio Olympics.

Inside the hallway, with the fluorescent lights and the creme-colored concrete walls, a woman is fidgety.

Not by nature, but by actions alone: tugging the bottom of her purple tanktop, touching the dreadlocks in a ponytail at her shoulders, rocking from the balls to the heels of her feet. Waiting.

Really, Shermaine Williams just wants to leave.

First, this hallway. She’d like to run out the doors behind her and onto the track at Johnson C. Smith, to sprint and to jump and to do other things Olympic hurdlers do. Eight years ago, she left her native Jamaica for this place, but in three weeks, she’ll have to leave here too.

Brazil. The Olympics. The reason she came at all.

Maybe she’s ready to go, to race the 100-meter hurdles alongside the world’s elite.

“I just wanna be the best that I can be,” Williams says. “I want to run, break records, lower my personal best – I want to be one of the best hurdlers in the world.”

But maybe she isn’t as prepared as she thinks – sure, she’ll run in Rio, but what about when there’s nowhere else to run?

“Then what happens?” she says. “Then I’ll just move on to the next phase of my life. It’ll be OK.”

Time’s up. Williams, 26, finally gets her wish. She strolls down the hall and out the heavy metal doors, into the sunlight and onto the short scratchy grass inside the track. She takes off her matching purple shoes and starts to jog barefoot, from one imaginary line to the next, and then back.

The fidgety woman is gone, replaced.

The focused one is the only one left.

Leaving from an early age

This leaving, it’s always been part of Williams’ life.

She grew up in rural Clarendon, surrounded by vegetation and the countryside. But when she was 8, her mother died. She had to leave, to live with her maternal grandparents two hours away in Kingston.

There, Ethel and Gilbert Palmer taught their granddaughter everything, from how to climb the mango tree in the front yard to the importance of faith. They were both preachers at a nearby Church of God, and despite her travels, those early lessons have stuck with Williams.

“I can’t do nothing without God’s strength,” she said.

But she found something else in Kingston: running. What started as races against classmates turned into honest competition, and Williams always won. In high school at Convent of Mercy Academy, she met Lennox Graham, then the track coach at Kingston College.

He introduced her to hurdles.

“I didn’t even know what they were,” Williams said. “He said you just run and jump over some stuff, and I said OK, I can do that.”

In 2008, when Williams was 18, Graham was named the track coach at Johnson C. Smith. The World Junior Championships were later that year, and Williams was suddenly without a coach.

Or not.

“I wanted to improve my chances,” she said, “so I said OK, let me come along.”

Not willing to settle

Williams moved to Charlotte to run track for J.C. Smith, and she finished second at those World Juniors.

But in the celebration, it was easy to forget what she’d left behind.

“It was hard, I was leaving family and friends and coming into a different environment,” she said. “I guess it was a culture shock.”

Gone were the ackee and saltfish dishes traditional to Jamaica, but also her grandparents. In 2010, two years after Williams came to the United States, Ethel passed away.

Still, Williams remained. She ran and jumped and trained harder than she ever had, and then in 2012, it all paid off. She represented Jamaica at the London Olympics, finishing one one-thousandth of a second away from qualifying for the 100-meter hurdle finals.

“I was nervous,” Williams said. “I remember when I went into the stadium, it was packed, and I looked up and was like, ‘Oh my.’

“I completely lost focus of what I was going to do.”

But she hadn’t left Jamaica all those years ago to settle. She had come to Charlotte to win. Back to the grind.

A dream disturbed

Earlier this month, Williams was back in Jamaica trying to qualify for the 2016 Olympics. She’d left Charlotte, but not alone.

With her was her younger sister Danielle, 24, the world champion in the 100-meter hurdles. The dream was for them both to qualify.

“She’s faster,” Shermaine said. “She’s much better.”

But on that day in July, Danielle wasn’t better. She got too close to one of the hurdles and knocked it down, throwing her completely out of rhythm. She stopped running and never finished the race.

Shermaine finished second, her 12.90 time fast enough to qualify.

And for once, Shermaine didn’t leave. She didn’t stop at the finish line, or celebrate, even rest. She kept running, back around the track, until she came to Danielle.

They hugged.

‘I’m just ready to go’

Back at Johnson C. Smith, Williams is still warming up.

Step-step, step-step, step-step.

It’s rhythmic, her running and jumping, like a machine bounding every third stride. And that’s with a torn PCL in her right knee in late February, which kept her out of high-intensity workouts for six weeks.

“There were times when I looked down and saw my knee,” Williams says, “and it was swollen and I was hopping and I couldn’t bend it.

“I didn’t see myself going to the Olympics, but I kept telling myself that I was gonna make it.”

And so she did.

But now comes the tricky part, or maybe it’s not anymore: leaving again.

It’s temporary, but it’s a sign of things to come. Three weeks to Rio, then back to Charlotte, maybe a trip to Jamaica to see family, and then?

Maybe Williams leaves this whole city behind, or maybe she leaves the sport altogether. Maybe she stays, leaving her family left in Jamaica. Maybe she does neither, leaving for somewhere and something else new entirely.

So appreciate her here, in this instant – it’s as fleeting as she is on the track. Three bounds, 100 meters. Then she’s gone.

She pulls her hair back in a bun as is routine, and puts on her track spikes. The sun beats down on her, the same here in Charlotte as it was in Jamaica and as it will be in Rio.

The focused woman ties her navy track spikes and walks past the line of hurdles to the start of the track. She kneels down and bows her head, and then assumes the starting position. Her parting words, all of a sudden, make sense.

“I’m just ready to go.”

Brendan Marks: 704-358-5337, @brendanrmarks

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