Born To Run
Olympian sprinter Jodie Williams on taking time out to heal – and climbing mountains (literally and figuratively)
By Kate Carter
Illustration by Esme Harvey-Otway
When is a comeback not a comeback, but an entirely new act? Getting back to form after years and years of injury setbacks is one thing, but setting PB after PB on your way to sixth place in an Olympic final – in an event you only took up seriously in the past year? That, surely, is not so much a new chapter in Jodie Williams’ story, as a whole different script.
It would be easy to imagine her story as the clichéd triumph of grit over adversity – cue the tug-at-the-heartstrings music. From precociously talented junior – winning world under-18 titles at 100m and 200m – to heartbreak to grinding it out against the odds. But that storyline just doesn’t work. In fact, watching her run in all the lead-up races, and in the Olympic heats, you just noticed how happy she looked: a huge smile on her face. “I honestly really enjoyed it!” she laughs. “I learned a lot in those years where I was almost behind the scenes. It was a bit of a break, actually. I developed a lot personally off the track. I had a lot more time to just get to know ‘me’, and get to know what I enjoy doing. And delve into the reasons that I even wanted to be an athlete in the first place.”
But she is honest, too: she doesn’t pretend that the years of setbacks were all fun and games. “I’d probably say there’s been three different sections or acts to my career,” she agrees. “The junior success obviously, which everyone is super aware of, and then the middle part, where I was – I don’t know if ‘lost’ is the right word, but I was just kind of struggling through injuries and not really knowing what was going on. And then kind of like a rebirth of the past couple of years, particularly the past 18 months.”
The culmination of that rebirth was, of course, the 400m final at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Having experienced ‘normal’ Olympic Games at Rio in 2016, how much did she enjoy the Covid-era games? “Honestly, I really did. Perhaps it was because it was such a long process, so just to get there, just to be in the village was a relief. But I think there was also a joint sense of pride in ourselves, that we had all managed to get there, despite everything.”How did it feel to perform in empty stadiums, though – did missing that crucial buzz and rush of thousands of cheering fans make a difference? “I honestly think I’ve forgotten what it’s like!” She laughs. “Of course, I love competing in front of a big crowd; nothing quite compares to stepping out into a full stadium. And I’d have loved to experience an Olympic final in front of a full crowd – but in the moment, you don’t really notice it. You’re just so focused on what’s going on: you’re just like, ‘Okay, well, I’ve got a job to do and I’m just going to get it done.’”
As a young track star, Williams certainly excelled at getting it done. But then, with that early success came the rising expectation and pressure. It’s a story we keep seeing played out, and we talk about Emma Raducanu’s recent victory at the US Open. “I always flinch a little bit when I see really young people burst onto the scene,” she admits. “I just think, I really hope that you’ve got great people around you, a really good support system. Some people are fine and it works for them. But when you break onto the scene like that, your life changes overnight, and you don’t have time to really get a grip on what you want to say and how you want to be perceived. So it just kind of happens and you’re playing catch up. And once you’ve said one thing, that’s kind of your narrative.”
But this year, she’s seized control of her own narrative and reworked it entirely. Her success in the 400m has also vindicated her brave decision to move to Arizona on her own in 2015 to train – no easy leap when she knew no one and had no connection with the place. “I was pretty young when I first moved out. I didn’’t even plan it. I actually went for a 10-day training camp and pretty much just didn’t leave. And it was a huge culture shock, I’d never really experienced the US. When I was younger, I assumed that the US and UK were quite similar in culture – they’re really not!” Perhaps being a bit of an outsider – away from any domestic expectations – worked to her advantage. We talk about witnessing firsthand the past five or six turbulent years in America, which she understatedly describes as “rather eye-opening” – but also discovering a joy in the bigger landscapes. “I’ve always loved being outdoors, I find it very calming and grounding. But obviously growing up in the UK, especially in London, there just weren’t a lot of opportunities,” she recalls.
“When I moved to Arizona and I was right in the mountains, I just fell in love with hiking. It was amazing to have it on my doorstep. My coach actually ended up making it a part of my programme, so my active recovery days would include a hike. That became a sort of mental and physical reset. Now I do it everywhere I go.” Surely, though, she must miss some things about England? “You know what, I miss the weather!” She pauses while I laugh somewhat incredulously. “I know, right, who would miss the UK weather? I don’t miss deep winter, but I miss seasons. In Phoenix, you don’t get any seasons: it’s literally just boiling hot all the time. I’m really very much an autumn/winter kind of girl. I like being cold, like wrapping up. So I really miss the UK autumn and roast dinners!” Aside from the distinct lack of Yorkshire puddings in Arizona, she loves the US lifestyle, which she finds much more spontaneous. “I don’t like to plan ahead, but I find that very hard in the UK, where you have to book stuff weeks in advance. In the US, even something as simple as getting my nails done, I can walk in and do it. You can just be more fluid, wake up, and see where the day takes you.”
She’s back in the UK for now, and when she heads back to the States, it will be to new adventures; her training setup is moving to Atlanta, which she is excited about. She also enthuses about working with Femlead, a small NGO in Uganda working to empower young women and girls through education. It’s clear when she talks about it that she’s not just a signature on a list or a picture on the website – it’s a small charity and everyone really pulls their weight: “You hear how incredibly hard these girls work, and it gives me extra motivation. If these girls can survive and keep pushing, if they’re going to go for their dreams, then who am I to not keep going for mine?” She also loves being part of the Women’s Sport Trust’s ‘Unlocked’ programme. “I’ll be honest, I didn’t really know what it was going to be like when I signed up. But it’s just been fantastic. I think we all feel this way – to be in a group of amazing strong women, bouncing ideas off each other, hearing all their stories – it’s just been incredible.”
2021 has been an outstanding year for Williams. She’s knocked a phenomenal amount of time off her 400m PB in such a short time – surely there is more to come. “I’m going to continue on this 400m journey and see where it takes me!” she declares. “Next year is huge. There’s the Commonwealth Games, and the World Athletics Championships in Oregon; there’s big things coming and I’m excited!” You certainly feel that there’s time for yet another act in her story, and a lot to be excited about.