On one side of the indoor track of the Bob Devaney Sports Center during the Nebraska Tune-Up meet, senior Shawnice Williams sits in silence in the on-deck area for runners. Loud speakers blare music; fans cheer, and she concentrates. It’s Feb. 21, as she sits with her head between bent legs and her black hair tied up with a white-dotted red bow. She thinks.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.
Her dad’s voice echoes in her head.
Go have fun, Shawnice. You can do this.
At the gun, Williams’ slender body takes off down the track. The runner behind may notice a tattoo of a track shoe hiding under Williams’ left ear and tattoos of small hearts and birds representing family under her right. It’s the 600-meter race, which has little room for error in its three laps.
Williams counts on her training, but now, the mental element will decide her success.
Williams has clashed with the psychological aspects of running races since high school. Her father’s push has built his daughter into a collegiate Division I runner through prayer and faith.
From her early racing days, Williams wasn’t one to trash talk or gloat after winning. Not only did she break West Los Angeles College’s record for the 800 meters, but later that year, she broke the record again at 2:08 in winning the 2012 California Community College Track and Field Championships.
“My dad always says, ‘Stay humble,’” Williams said.
Track teammate senior Sidney Madlock said he can’t even cheer for Williams at her races because she’ll turn beat red.
“She’s always been conscious of other people,” Williams’ father, Clinton Williams, said.
Williams’ quiet demeanor and unassertiveness almost stopped her from becoming a collegiate athlete. In 10th grade she joined the track team with her cousin. On the track, Williams had the chance to try something different from her basketball-playing family.
Her first 400-meter race of the year at Paramount High School turned out to be a learning experience.
“I didn’t know where the finish line was. I saw a wire thing and thought that was it,” Williams said.
As she crossed what she thought to be the finish line in first place, she didn’t understand why people kept yelling at her to “GO!” She soon figured out she hadn’t crossed the right line yet, sprinted ahead and won the race.
“I come out learning something from a race,” Williams said. “I can’t go back and change a race. I take my courage and go run the next race.”
Although she’s flourished at track and field, even qualifying for the NCAA Championships last year, Williams said she believes her biggest personal accomplishment is being at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and working toward her degree in psychology. Learning about what’s going on in the human brain fascinates her.
“The more you learn, the more you grow,” Williams said.
She knows she can’t be an athlete forever, so the chance to help people through stages of their lives and help them see the positive side of things is Williams’s dream.
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Distance coach David Harris is screaming again: “Keep up with her, stay together, no gaps!”
He, too, tries to get Williams to understand the positive side of his workouts.
“You got to stay positive,” Williams said. “I tell people we’re almost done with the workout even if were not close. It’s great working out with Coach Harris. He says if we practice hard, it’ll be easier in the meet, and it’s so true.”
Williams sprints around the track as sweat slides down to her purple tank top. She finishes and glances down at the time on her red sports watch. The loudest voice in the arena is Harris yelling: “Let’s go, don’t stand around, you guys decide what you can do.”
She was all smiles while warming up but is as serious as a psychologist now.
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At the NCAA Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Ore., in 2013, Williams was scheduled to run the 800-meter. It was a big stage with the best athletes from across the country and a new environment.
“I was very emotional and nervous,” Williams said. “I try to block it out of my memory.”
Williams was in Heat 1 against seven runners. The runners were set up facing the Oregon Ducks’ green jumbotron with thousands of fans sitting in the grandstand over their right shoulders. Williams crossed the line last in her heat at 2:18, finishing in last place out of 24 runners overall. She calls this day the worst of her athletic career.
“I think what bothers me the most is I don’t know what went wrong,” Williams said.
Although she attempts to block out the memory, it continues to nag at her and grows into motivation for training.
Williams’ best friend senior Anna Minnick runs the 600- and 800-meter races with Williams and knows the tough and sensitive side of her. Not only do Minnick and Williams push each other on the track, but also in the fields of cross country races.
“She took cross country to a whole new level,” Madlock said. “She did it better than people who were made for that sport.”
Harris is the coach of the cross country team. After spending his first track season with Williams, he convinced her she would improve her endurance by joining the cross country team in 2013.
“If I can help the team, why not?” Williams said.
Harris recalled spending so much time recruiting Williams he thought she was sick of him. Williams ended up 1,497 miles from home to run for a coach who wanted the best out of everybody.
Sophomore Sarah Larson remembers the first race of the season at Augustana College on a hot, humid day. Williams’ shoe had come off at the beginning of the race, and she went on to finish the race with only one of them.
Harris said he can’t forget running through fields of tall grass at the NCAA regionals two months later in Ames, Iowa, trying to cheer on the runners. He was exhausted toward the last leg of the race and couldn’t catch up to Williams to cheer her on one last time. He ended up watching her fly by everybody at the end of the race.
The motivation comes from her desire to be able to score points for the team and beat her personal records.
“I’m happy about getting my PR’s but after I get it, it’s time to move on from that,” Williams said. “Let’s get the next one.”
The softer side of her drive comes from her father, who is a quick phone call away.
“He means everything to me,” Williams said. “He’s always there. He’s my best friend.”
Williams has a small picture posted to the dashboard of her 2001 yellow Ford Mustang. Whenever Williams sits down on the Tweety Bird seat covers, a photograph of a young Clinton Williams looks back at her. It’s a symbol of simple encouragement for the day.
Many runners eat the same meal before a race or have a ritual that they believe guides them to their success. Some runners refer to it as a physiological thing. Williams’ ritual is calling her father before a race.
Williams’ father will say the serenity prayer or remind Williams to not overthink her race. In order not to psych herself out, Williams refuses to know anything about her competitors, but never underestimates her competition.
Williams repeatedly thinks: Run your race. Don’t run their race.
Just go have fun, Shawnice.
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A gold Minnie Mouse necklace bounces off her chest, a tribute to her 2-year-old niece. Her yellow spiked Adidas shoes carry her to the front of the pack. The first of the three laps in the 600-meter race has Williams in a narrow lead. She shifts her body around the bend. Arms pump, long legs stride around the track. Williams turns the corner of the track on the inside edge 50 meters from the finish line. Her strides carry her as a home crowd erupts in cheers. About 90 seconds after the gun went off, Williams is the first to cross the white finish line. She breathes in as much oxygen as her lungs allow. She congratulates junior Ellen Dougherty and Minnick and walks off the track. No celebrating or boasting. Just a quick exit and another lesson learned.