The first in a series profiling athletes with Arkansas ties at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro
FAYETTEVILLE -- Chrishuna Williams worked as a substitute teacher this year as she trained for a shot to make the U.S. Olympic track and field team.
Williams, who graduated from Arkansas in 2015 with a degree in human development and life science, needed the teaching job because she didn't have a sponsorship deal with a shoe and apparel company.
"It definitely wasn't easy," Williams said. "I'd be in bed by 8 or 9 o'clock every night because I was so tired."
To teach and train, Williams awoke at 5 a.m. to lift weights for an hour. Then she rushed home and got ready to go to work at the New School in Fayetteville and taught through the afternoon before heading to the track to practice with Arkansas assistant coach Chris Johnson.
SPORT Track and Field
EVENT 800 meters
LIVES AND TRAINS Fayetteville
HIGH SCHOOL DeSoto
AGE 23 (born March 31, 1993)
NOTEWORTHY Will compete for U.S. at Olympics after finishing third in the 800 at the Trials July 4. ... Ten-time All-American at Arkansas. ... Ran on the Razorbacks' NCAA champion 1,600 relay outdoors in 2013. ... Took fourth in the 800 at NCAA indoors to help Arkansas win team national title. ... SEC 800 indoor champion in 2015. ... Signed endorsement deal with Nike shortly before U.S. Trials this year. ... Graduated from Arkansas last year with degree in Human Development and Life Science. ... Taught as substitute teacher at New School in Fayetteville this year.
QUOTE "I'm 5-3, so every time I step on the track I'm looking up at people. But at the end of the day, I might be the smallest, but I have a big heart when I'm out there competing."
It was a hectic schedule that left Williams little or no time beyond her full-time job training to be a world-class athlete and teaching to pay her bills, along with help from her family.
"I think it's humbling and it drives you," Johnson said. "I think it makes you hungry.
"I don't think it's an ideal situation by any means, but it's almost like you're training with a chip on your shoulder. You see other young ladies and young men that have pro contracts, and you feel like you're just as good as them and work just as hard as they do.
"You feel like you've got to prove yourself over and over again. I think Chrishuna has trained with that type of intensity and it's paid off for her."
The payoff for Williams, 23, is a spot on the Olympic team in the 800 meters. She earned that by taking third at the U.S. Trials, running a personal-best 1:59.59 July 4 in Eugene, Ore., a year after taking 17th at the U.S. Championships.
Williams, who came to Arkansas from Dallas, will run in the first round of the 800 at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro Aug. 17.
About a month before the Trials, Williams signed an endorsement agreement with Nike after she ran 2:00.58 -- the leading time in the U.S. during the outdoor season at that point -- May 7 to win at the Payton Jordan Invitational in Palo Alto, Calif.
"I think she was just happy that someone actually believed in her and helped give her the ability to keep doing what she wants to do, and that's run track," Johnson said.
Making the Olympic team figures to increase Nike's support of Williams.
"Her life has changed," Arkansas Coach Lance Harter said. "That's the power of the Olympics."
Williams said she plans to teach this fall at the New School if she's needed as a substitute, but that will be by choice, not out of financial necessity.
"Track is my No. 1 priority now," she said. "That can be my focus."
Williams was a 10-time All-American at Arkansas with her biggest contributions coming on relay teams, including helping the Razorbacks win the NCAA 1,600 relay outdoors in 2013 and take second indoors in 2015.
At the recommendation of Johnson, Williams moved to the 800 for her senior season after running in the 400 meters her first three years with Arkansas. She won an SEC indoor title and took second outdoors in the 800 in 2015 and finished fourth at the NCAA indoor and outdoor meets.
Johnson said Williams was a good college 400 runner, but didn't have the speed -- with a personal-best 53.05 as a junior -- to be elite in that event. The 800, Johnson projected, was a better event for Williams because of her combination of strength and speed.
Johnson pitched the idea of switching from the 400 to the 800 late in Williams' junior year, and she was initially resistant.
"I was like, 'No, Coach, I can't do that,' " Williams said. "But before a meet outdoors, he said, 'I'm going to throw in the 800.' "
Williams ran 2:09. A few weeks later, she ran the 800 again and cut her time to 2:06.
"Coach Johnson said, 'Your senior year you're running the 800,' " Williams said. "I'm glad he made me do it, because it's really worked out.
"As I kept competing in meets and saw my times in the 800 going down, I was like, 'I belong here.' "
Johnson said he "kind of tricked" Williams into becoming an 800 runner.
"We started doing a little more training for the 800 here, a little more there," he said. "Her body responded to it well.
"She got comfortable with it and as she started to get used to the training and experienced some success, she bought into it. She's taken off from there."
Taylor Ellis-Watson ran with Williams' on Arkansas' relays and is a member of the U.S. Olympic team in the 1,600 relay. Ellis-Watson, who finished fourth in the 400 at the Olympic Trials, got an endorsement deal with Adidas shortly after ending her college career this year and admires what Williams did in training without a sponsor for several months.
"That's passion for you," Ellis-Watson said. "She loves track and she wants to be good and to better herself.
"To know how much she improved and make the Olympic team, it's unreal. People weren't looking at her like she was going to make this team, but she didn't sneak on. She deserved it."
Williams said she was looking to move up through the pack in the 800 finals at the Trials with 120 meters to go when Alysia Montana, stumbled and fell, along with some other runners.
"I was in the back, so I was able to see it," Williams said. "I wasn't exactly sure who fell. I just knew I had to stay focused so I could finish strong."
Williams took third and the final Olympic team spot by .04 with Molly Ludlow finishing fourth in 1:59.63.
"I thought Chrishuna seized the moment," Johnson said. "With the pressure of her being in her first Olympic Trials and having so much at stake, she committed to the finish line and taking one of the top three spots."
Williams sank to her knees on the track after the race.
"I looked up to the big screen and saw, 'Williams, third place,' and my body just gave out," she said. "I dropped to the ground and gave thanks to God. That's all I could do.
"I've had dreams of competing at the Olympics since I first started running track. So realizing that dream means the world to me. I wouldn't trade it for anything."
Ellis-Watson watched the 800 between her races in the 400 and 200 at the Trials.
"I was screaming, tearing up, crying," Ellis-Watson said. "I was so happy for Chrishuna. This means so much for her career.
"I know she wasn't sure if she was going to go pro a couple of years ago. I'm so glad she made this choice."
Johnson said he believes Williams has a bright future in the 800 considering her age and relative lack of experience in the event.
"She's going to have a nice, long career," Johnson said. "She's still very new to the 800, so she's got a lot of upside. I really think she has unlimited potential."
Williams said she's confident she'll run well at the Olympics.
"I still have a lot more in me," she said. "I know I do for a fact.
"I think come Rio, some of that will really show."
Sports on 07/28/2016
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