Lauryn Williams' mother knew her daughter was fast when she beat the family's German shepherd through her Detroit neighborhood. Her father knew it when his 10-year-old daughter challenged the hologram image of former Olympic sprinter Florence Griffith-Joyner at a museum exhibit -- and beat her.
But it took years for Williams, a 2005 world champion and 2004 Olympic silver medalist in the 100 meters, to warm up to the sport.
"It wasn't quite my personality," Williams said by phone on her way to practice Monday. "Running in circles sounded stupid to me."
Williams, 24, will run straight ahead when she competes in the 67th California Invitational Relays today at Modesto Junior College, her first 100-meter race of the year.
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"I'm really excited, because I can finally find out where I am," said Williams, the runner-up at last year's Worlds. "You can be breaking world records in practice, but you don't know what will happen when you get into a race and compete."
Modesto's world-class meet will be Williams' first benchmark, only 47 days from the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore. The trials, which will send the top three women to the Beijing 100, may have the most competitive 100-meter field in history. Three contenders, including Williams with a personal best of 10.88 seconds, have posted times under 11 flat. Seven others have PRs of 11.10 or faster.
Williams is training for her second Olympics at her alma mater, the University of Miami, where she graduated with a degree in finance in 3½ years. The 5-foot-3-inch sprinter shares her Miami house with the world's tallest breed of dog, a Great Dane named Atheena. But her choice of pet had nothing to do with compensating for size.
"When I was young, that's what I thought rich people had," Williams said, laughing. "I thought of a Great Dane and a butler answering the door."
While Williams' quick rise made her the "World's Fastest Woman" at age 21, she's hardly the diva you might expect with such a title.
Williams received the Visa Humanitarian Athlete of the Year Award in 2006 and donated her award money to the Miami nonprofit Fun 4 Kidz that gives abused and underprivileged children a taste of sports, arts and culture.
In November, Williams gave $5,000 to start a mentoring program at Fun 4 Kidz that connects a University of Miami athlete with each child. The athletes stay in touch with the children on a weekly basis, and Williams joins the children on trips and activities throughout the year. She recently enrolled in a sign language interpreting program as a result of her work with a class of deaf students at a Miami elementary school while also working toward an MBA.
"Lauryn is the most unassuming of superstars, but her heart is so big," said Fun 4 Kidz president and founder Andrew Post. "I admire the way athletes spend their time and money. Nobody puts in the amount of emotional ties as Lauryn does."
She's also quick to open her checkbook, donating $10,000 to Florida families affected by hurricanes and putting $1,000 for each sub-11 100 she runs into a scholarship fund for female athletes.
The good karma came back to Williams when friends and strangers donated more than $20,000 to bring her family to the Athens Olympics and paid for her father's leukemia treatments so he could watch his daughter sprint to a silver medal in Athens.
But good deeds don't dominate headlines when some of sprinting's biggest names make news for the wrong reasons. Marion Jones is in jail. And Chryste Gaines -- the 1996 Olympic 4x100 gold medalist also entered in today's 100 -- is trying to resurrect her career after a two-year suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs.
Williams tries to avoid the controversy but occasionally vents in personal blogs on her Web site, www.laurynwilliams.net.
"It's just really unfortunate that this stuff is going on," Williams said. "I just try to be a positive role model for females and hope they'll follow my example rather than the bad example."
Before the intense pressure of the Olympics kicks in, Williams will take to the new electric blue surface of the MJC track, eager to see how months of training have paid off.
"I just want to get out there and run," she said.
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2337.