To what lengths would you go to pursue an Olympic dream?
Shaun Williams started with 10,000 miles. But only just started.
Like just about everyone else competing in Athens this past fortnight, Williams’ Olympic odyssey is fraught with sacrifices, obstacles, detours and discouragements – in other words, the meaningful parts of the pursuit of a personal happiness.
And now he’s there, which is the best part.
An assistant coach at Central Valley High School and a master’s candidate at Eastern Washington University, Williams resumes his long-shot mission today when men’s freestyle wrestling winds up just as the Games are beginning to wind down.
He’ll be representing his native South Africa – one of just a handful of Africans competing in wrestling and one of only two freestylers (Namibia’s Nicolaas Jacobs being the other) who earned their berths through qualification (at last year’s World Championships) rather than being chosen as wild cards.
“There are various reasons why so few qualified,” Williams wrote in an e-mail interview, “but mostly wrestling is just not very tough in Africa.”
Which is why Williams made the 10,000-mile trip here – or rather, to Coeur d’Alene, where he wrestled for Pat Whitcomb at North Idaho College before moving on to the University of Oregon. It’s why Jacobs made his way to the University of Manitoba and continues to train in Calgary.
“(It) is the lack of financial support to get our athletes the training, competition and exposure they need to excel on the world stage,” Williams said. “Look at Daniel Igali. He was a Nigerian who stayed in Canada after the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria. Five years later, he became world champion and also Olympic gold medalist in Sydney in 2000.
“There are many more wrestlers on the (African) continent with the same abilities, but opportunity is what will keep them from reaching those same dreams.”
And yet wrestling opportunity in the United States is drying up nearly as fast, what with the sport being increasingly cannibalized on the college level. No collegiate programs remain in the state of Washington, for instance, and while Williams has completed his eligibility, lack of competitive outlets hereabouts have certainly impacted his international ambitions.
“Training partners pose a big problem for him,” said John Owen, CV’s head coach and whose South African connections helped bring Williams to NIC in the first place. “He has to go everywhere – his mileage is unbelievable, and they (the South Africans) are good about allowing him to travel like that, but when he’s by himself it’s real difficult.”
Meaning it’s tough building yourself into medal-caliber when you’re going against kids in the CV wrestling room.
Here’s a quick review of Williams’ itinerary since the end of the high school season in February:
•Poland Open in Seidlice for 10 days;
•World Cup of Freestyle in Baku, Azerbaijan for another week;
•Olympic training camp in South Africa for about a month, returning to the United States in May;
•In Germany for three weeks at the German Grand Prix and later the German School of Wrestling camp in Leipzig;
•Back in Cheney in June and July to work at the Owen Wrestling Camps;
•Left for South Africa on July 18 for a week “holding” camp at the South African High Performance Center in Pretoria;
•Departed for Athens on Aug. 3 – where’s been ever since, trying to keep a handle on his weight, stay sharp and not go stir crazy.
Oh, yes. And that pinball schedule all started with Williams and his fiancé, Jillian Rhodes, having their first child – a son, Hunter, who accompanied them to South Africa in April.
“I’m thankful to Jillian for being so understanding and supportive of all this,” Williams said.
Williams earned his Olympic spot by finishing 11th in the worlds – the top 10 automatically qualifying, unless one of those 10 represented Olympic host Greece, which happened to be the case in the 55 kilogram/121 pound class. That, of course, makes him a decided underdog in Athens.
“On paper, I am probably the least favorite wrestler to win, or even win a medal,” he said. “There are six or seven wrestlers who could win the gold, all from the former Soviet Union, Iran, USA and Cuba. However, if the Olympic champion was determined on paper, we would not have these awesome games.
“So I can only concentrate on my own emotions and all the things that I can control and just compete to the best of my ability. If I do just that, winning and losing will take care of itself. After all, nobody ever enters to lose. I wrestle to win the gold.”
He thought he would have that chance eight years ago in Atlanta, when he was also an Olympic qualifier. But amid the polticial and social changes in his country, he was not included among South Africa’s 180-member Olympic squad that year. He didn’t compete for a berth in 2000, when he was a senior at Oregon, and isn’t sure if he’ll have another opportunity. A graduate student in urban and regional planning at EWU, he must take his final exams and write and defend his thesis this fall. Eventually, he’d like to open his own consulting business in the field.
“But where I’ll be doing that is yet to be determined,” he said. “Jillian and I are thinking of moving back to South Africa for a couple of years and then see where things take us.
“As far as wrestling goes, I’m not sure. I want to spend more time with other important things in life – but at the same time, I want to be in Beijing in 2008.”
Why not? He’s already come this far.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.