Jodie Williams Is Listening
With a passion for Japanese street fashion, a love of colourful hair, and an advocate for important causes, British sprinter Jodie Williams stands out in the world of athletics. We chat to the two-time Olympian about running, fashion and why she is lending an ear to support others
By Alice Barraclough
You may well recognise British sprinter and two-time Olympian Jodie Williams, 29, for her wild hair colours – lime green is her personal favourite – and love of Japanese streetwear, but life for Jodie hasn’t always been this colourful. Originally from Welwyn Garden City, in Herefordshire, she lived and breathed running from a very young age. A self-proclaimed overachiever, Jodie started training as a professional athlete at just 15 years old (although took a serious approach from 11) and went on to win the world under-18 titles at 100m and 200m. She was dubbed as a rising star and nicknamed “Miss Money Legs” after her friends at school called her legs the “money makers”.
Of course, that’s a lot of pressure to put on anyone’s shoulders. Let alone a young girl who’s spent pretty much her entire childhood being undefeated. And while she’s since competed at both the Rio and Tokyo Olympics, it’s fair to say that her athletic career has seen both incredible highs and devastating lows. The lowest of them all? When she tore her hamstring at the London 2012 trials in Birmingham, on live TV. “It was awful,” she says. “I was so incredibly gutted to miss out on London.” Only 18 years old, Jodie was seen leaving the track in tears after pulling up in agony around 15m from the line in the women’s 100m final. “I’d put everything – my whole life – into trying to get to the Olympics, and there I was lying on the track, with a camera in my face,” she says. “It kind of set me off into a bit of a downward spiral.”
Some reporters have described Jodie’s transition from under-18 to elite level as a struggle, but she says that’s “really unfair” and that everything came to a head in 2012 when she was constantly plagued with injury. “I was completely burnt out. I’d spent years sacrificing everything for running – I never went to university, and I didn’t even finish school. It is a surprise that my body – and mind – was just exhausted?”
Exhausted is the word Jodie uses to describe all the different resources she tried and depleted before moving stateside to Phoenix, Arizona, in 2015. “This was really a big turning point for me, I just found it reinvigorated me. Whatever I was doing at home was no longer working, I’d grown into a stressed, anxious, burnt-out adult, so I knew something needed to change. I needed to shake things up and start from a blank slate,” she says. “They do sport very differently over here – it’s a lot more collaborative, which I like.” Although, this perhaps has more to do with Jodie’s coach, rather than being a generic US thing. “We have open discussions on the types of sessions I’d like to do (within reason) and he works within the scope of how my body is feeling on the day rather than there being a hard line on what needs to be done,” she adds.
It was quite a drastic move. Jodie essentially moved halfway around the world to start a new life. “I got a new and very empathic coach and started to take ownership over my training and the direction I wanted to go in,” she says. Now based in Atlanta, Georgia, she admits living in the US did take some getting used to – she misses being able to just pop to the shops: “no one walks anywhere in America”. But there are plenty of perks – and the coffee isn’t too bad either. Looking back at her early 20s, it’s clear the constant injuries and so-called ‘failures’ plagued Jodie with self-doubt and anxiety. It would have been so easy to just give up and retire from the world of athletics. So why didn’t she just call it quits? “I guess I’m just really stubborn,” she says. “And I knew I wasn’t done with running just yet.” Jodie describes running as her meditation. “I’m never more at peace than when I’m running – I’ve always felt that way, even as a kid.”
Like many athletes who spend years physically training to be at the top of their game, so much of their identity – and who they are as a person – is centred around their sport. But Jodie clearly isn’t just a sprinter. She’s also incredibly passionate about her work off the track – challenging the status quo around everything from period poverty to the living conditions for women in coffee farming communities. Some of you may have already listened to – or watched on YouTube – her podcast, Coffee Conversations with Jodie Williams, in which she chats to a series of inspirational women from around the world who are challenging ‘the norm’. Or even heard about the work Jodie does with the Women’s Athletic alliance and her ongoing mission for funding and development of female athletes in East Africa. “Mary Ngugi, the founder of WAA, has set up a female-only running camp in her home town in Kenya and we are currently working to provide a set-up to train women coaches,” she says.
But her latest endeavour is a brand new online journal called ‘Listen’. “It’s about reclaiming your voice,” she explains. “And giving a voice to people who don’t feel heard. I felt incredibly micromanaged as a kid, and along with the enormous pressure I’d felt as a young athlete, I never really felt like I was calling the shots. I felt like there was this external team around me who spoke for me, and I never really spoke. Even though people tell me I was always quite rebellious and abrasive – probably because I don’t like being told what to do – I was actually a very quiet child. I was very shy and awkward as a kid – and I struggled to connect with people. Perhaps because I was always ‘othered’, and never quite felt like I belonged anywhere other than running. I guess that’s why sport was such a great outlet for me.”
She describes herself as “the typical wallflower”. “I always had a very strong sense of what’s right and what’s wrong, but I very much played the role of ‘the observer’ and I was always pretty aware of people’s perceptions of me,” she says. The new Listen platform is going to highlight stories of people who feel marginalised on a global scale. “The main aim is to create a safe space to be heard and a strong community of empathetic people. It’s a space to be heard and a space to empower women,” she adds. “It will be incredibly visual with submissions and documentaries and photo series and long-form – and the podcast will be encapsulated in the journal, too.” And the aim – other than to give these unheard voices a platform – is to create empathy and solace. “I know how it feels to be a young girl who doesn’t feel heard or listened to, so hopefully others can resonate with that.”
Jodie says she’s always loved writing, and actually really struggles to vocalise how she’s feeling – so Listen will look and feel very much like a diary. And it won’t be limited to just stories about sport or sportspeople. “I am currently working on some stories around ‘Womanhood’, where I will speak to a handful of women on what womanhood means through their lens,” she adds. “And a story on a black-owned local coffee shop in Atlanta – they’re working to change the narrative around what a coffee shop is and what it means to the local neighbourhood (often early signs of gentrification).”
Other than expressing herself through the written word, Jodie loves to experiment with fashion and statement dressing. Scroll through her Instagram feed and you’ll see pictures of Jodie wearing everything from outrageous neon trousers to knee-high white leather boots – the sort of fashion most could only dream of getting away with. Yet here she is, on the London Underground, wearing a bubblegum pink hat with cat ears and totally rocking it. “I’ve always loved to express myself through clothing,” she says. Her favourite brand at the moment? “Lazy Oaf – it’s this really cool independent streetwear brand from London.” Think: chunky scarfs with smiley faces, graphic out-there prints and 90s style denim. “I’ve always loved silhouettes used in Japanese streetwear,” she adds. “There’s a Japanese designer I started following recently, based in LA, who makes one-off pieces with his art. His store is called Prospective Flow. I like to find local or smaller brands to buy from, there’s always a much greater connection to the clothing. Another LA-based brand that my friend recently introduced me to, Meals Clothing, their clothing is all non-gendered which I particularly like. I would love to be dressed by a brand called A Better Mistake, their tagline is creative disobedience and I love that.”
“I do actually also love Puma,” she says – she’s a Puma-sponsored athlete but quick to caveat that she’s not paid to say nice things about them, or indeed wear them in her spare time. “I love some of the collabs they do, and often it’s the first thing I’ll throw on in the morning. You know it’s good stuff when it’s all you actually wear.”
And then, of course, is the topic of her hair. Lime green, tangerine orange, at one stage there were even bright red patterned flowers – she’s experimental. “It’s just fun, isn’t it,” she says. Although, it’s well known that sprinters, at least in comparison to long-distance runners, treat the start line of their event a bit like a catwalk. “Sprinters definitely bring fashion to the track, I think this is something that happens globally, not just in the US. I love the glamorous side. Sport can be so regimented and there is little time to express yourself when you have a uniform to wear and compete for under a minute. It’s cool to see a feminine aspect being brought into what can be a very masculine environment,” says Jodie. “It’s partly an intimidation tactic, partly just to look and feel good.”
It’s clear fashion can be a place for rebellion and activism as can sport. “I think these both play a huge part in my ability to be able to speak out about the causes I care about,” she says. “Everything I do is cause-driven. Whether that be a creative endeavour, the clothes I wear or the sport I do, nine times out of 10 there will be a reason behind what I’m doing.”
Either way, we’re pretty sure the hairstyles are here to stay, as Jodie isn’t hanging up her spikes just yet – and has her sights set firmly on Paris 2024 – and perhaps even the 2025 World Athletics Championships in Tokyo. “I just love everything about Tokyo. I love the city, I love the food and the fashion. It would be great to actually get to compete with fans in the stadium too,” she adds. Highly motivated – on and off the track – no matter what happens in the lead-up to the next Olympics, Jodie is destined for big things. Perhaps that means running fast, or maybe that means advocating for women’s voices to be heard – and asking more people to ‘listen’.