EUGENE, Ore. – A month ago, Dustin Williams purchased two plane tickets to London: one for himself, and one for his wife. Williams is a physical therapist on USA Track & Field’s medical staff at the London 2012 Olympic Games. His wife, Jillian Camarena-Williams, won the bronze medal in shot put at the 2011 World Championships. She is also a 2008 Olympian.
But she had yet to make the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team. Asked if he feared he was jinxing his wife by buying plane tickets when she had yet to make the team, Williams said no.
“We try not to be superstitious,” he said. He had “trust and faith that she could get the job done.”
Except on a cloudy day at Eugene’s historic Hayward Field, 30-year-old Camarena-Williams was not getting the job done.
In fourth place after her first throw (only the top three qualify for the Olympics), she fouled on her second throw. Going into her third throw, she had fallen to fifth.
“Usually she has a good first throw, one and done,” said Williams, who confessed that he was nervous, especially after she fouled second round.
Then it started to rain — a light mist that soaked shot put’s 7-foot diameter starting circle. And the 4-kilogram (8.8 lb) shots.
“I about gave [Dustin] a heart attack today,” Camarena-Williams said. “All I could think was I want to be on that plane. It was in the back of my mind that he was going, and I had to be there with him.”
In the third round, Camarena-Williams took a deep breath, walked to the back of the circle, and squatted low. She spun and put the shot so high in the air that it seemed to hang above Hayward Field as if gravity no longer had an effect. It finally landed in the dirt like a cannon shot. 62 feet-10.5 inches (19.16 meters). She moved into the lead and held it for the next three rounds.
“I tried to push it, and when I push it, my technique falls apart a little bit,” Camarena-Williams explained of her first two throws. “But in the third round, I slowed it down and I got that 19.16. I’m so grateful to have made it through.”
But Camarena-Williams’ nomination to the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team is more than a story about overcoming nerves and weather conditions at Trials. It’s about a technique change from ‘gliding’ to ‘spinning’ that she made in 2006.
Most shot putters start by learning the easier glide technique to throw the shot. The shot putter starts in the back of the seven-foot circle and makes a 180-degree rotation, shifting weight from one leg to the other to put more force into the throw.
The spin technique is more difficult and brings centrifugal force into the throwing motion. The shot putter rotates — or spins — in the circle like a discus thrower. Soviet shot putter Aleksandr Baryshnikov is credited with first using the technique in 1972, though it may have been independently developed in the U.S. also.
A year after graduating from Stanford, Camarena-Williams decided to attend graduate school at Brigham Young University, where she found shot put coach Craig Carter. He agreed to coach her, but only if she changed from gliding to spinning.
“That was his ultimatum,” she said. “It was 2006, it was an off year (from Olympics and World Championships). I said, ‘OK, let’s give it a try.’ It was surprisingly not that bad of a change.”
Many shot putters are successful gliders, like Michelle Carter and Tia Brooks, who were also nominated to the U.S. Olympic shot put team on Friday. But the new technique took Camarena-Williams from being “a 59-foot glider to a 66-foot rotator.”
“Changing my technique was one of the best things that I could have done for my career,” said the affable field athlete. “I was a successful glider, but I was never quite at that level. After that first four months of doing the spin, I had a three-foot increase in my PR.”
But new technique is not all that has helped Camarena-Williams reach London. Since healing from a herniated disc and surgery to repair it before the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials, she has remained remarkably injury-free. This has allowed her upward trajectory to continue uninterrupted.
And for that, Dustin Williams can take credit. They met in 2006, and their friendship blossomed in 2008 at Olympic Trials when he worked on her back as well as a knee injury daily. They married in September 2009, and the following year, after a successful indoor season, she traveled to Europe and competed in Diamond League meets.
Competing against the world’s best week after week, she could see what she needed to do to reach their level. In 2011, she tied the American record at a Diamond League meet in July (66 ft-2.5”), then won the bronze medal at worlds.
Now a medal favorite heading to London, Camarena-Williams’ biggest challenge could be overcoming her own nerves.
“My technique is there, I know it’s there, I’ve had great practices,” she said after securing her spot on the 2012 Olympic Team. “I just have to calm down, and when I can do that I can win a medal.”
After his wife’s jittery start at Trials, followed by the relief of winning, Dustin Williams gave Camarena-Williams a big hug beside the track at Hayward Field.
And he whispered in her ear, “Hey, we made the team.”
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.