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Jesse Williams Hopes to Fly High in Eugene

By Karen Rosen | June 22, 2012, 4 p.m. (ET)

Jesse Williams
Jesse Williams, seen here competing at the IAAF World Indoor Championships, looks to shine this weekend at U.S. Olympic Trials.

As a “field” guy living in TrackTown USA, world champion high jumper Jesse Williams sometimes flies under the radar.

Standing just a shade over 6 feet tall, he said a lot of people in Eugene, Ore., “don’t think that I’m an athlete; they just think I’m an ‘Average Joe,’ which I like. I’m a fairly recognizable person around here, but being a shorter guy makes it easier for me to just blend in.”

Google his name and the Jesse Williams from the television show “Grey’s Anatomy” shows up first, but the jumping Jesse is fine with that, too.

“He’s an actor,” he said. “I’m a track and field athlete. Let’s be real.”

This weekend Williams will be hard to miss as the U.S. Olympic Trials for Track & Field begin at Hayward Field.

With a top-three finish in these Trials, Williams will command the attention of his hometown crowd, rev up the Internet search engines and punch his ticket to London.

Should he make the team and compete in the Games in London, Williams will try to become the first American to win the high jump gold medal since Charles Austin in 1996 in Atlanta. Last year, he ended a 20-year U.S. medal drought at the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea.

“This is my time and I understand that,” Williams said. “I’m going to do everything I can to make the best of it. Winning the World Championships last year when I was 27 years old, and now being 28, my mind and body are just tuned up.

“I know I can do certain things. I’m very strong physically and mentally and I’m at my peak.”

As last year’s Jesse Owens Award winner, Williams is the only athlete on the cover of the 2012 USA Track & Field media guide, which carries high expectations in an Olympic year. He’s also featured on the TrackTown12 website.

Williams said he likes the pressure of being an early favorite for Olympic gold and chided Track & Field News for picking him behind Andrey Silnov of Russia. Silnov won the gold medal in Beijing. “They have me getting Silver,” Williams tweeted. “Hope to prove them wrong with one spot higher!”

Cliff Rovelto, who coaches him from Manhattan, Kan., said Williams is “the best prepared” U.S. athlete to win the Olympic crown since Austin. Rovelto also has worked with Matt Hemingway, who earned the Olympic silver medal in 2004, and Jamie Nieto, who was fourth in Athens.

Williams spends a a couple of weeks before his first competition each season with Rovelto, who coaches at Kansas State, working on technique. They also scheduled some sessions in Eugene before the Trials.

“Jesse has been at a high level for a significant period of time, and since Charles we haven’t had anybody ranked high year in and year out,” Rovelto said. “Certainly there’s a lot of confidence that comes from competing at that high a level for that length of time, and there’s a pretty healthy respect that a guy earns from his competitors having done what he’s done.”

At the U.S. nationals last year, Williams soared to a personal best of 7 feet 9 ¼ inches (2.37 meters) at Hayward Field, where he was bolstered by the cheering crowd. That equals third on the all-time U.S. list behind Austin and Hollis Conway.

Williams will attempt to time his jumps in the qualifying round Saturday and the final Monday so he doesn’t have competition from runners on the track.

“Sometimes if I’m really getting into it and I want the crowd to be involved, I’ll wait till a race is just finishing up or I’ll try and beat them to the gun,” said Williams, who has lived in Eugene for five years. “I love having the crowd watching me and only me.”

He continues to be motivated by his last Olympic Games four years ago in Beijing, where he didn’t make the final, tying for eighth in his qualifying flight.

“I remember just being really upset walking out of the stadium and saying to myself, ‘It’s over,’ ” he said. “I just can’t believe how fast it happened. I remember my first miss in the Olympics (at 7-6) and just getting really uptight and nervous about not making the final. Then I hardly remember anything of my next two misses at that height and soon enough I was packing my bags.

“I went all the way out to Beijing for almost an entire month not even to make the finals,” he added. “It was embarrassing for me. I had the talent to make the finals and to do well in the finals, but I just didn’t get it done and it hurt for a long time.”

Williams said he is now able to make mental adjustments. “I’ve made many third-attempt bars this year,” he said. “I’d rather, obviously, make them on the first attempt, but I never give up on bars and I think I kind of did that in the Olympics. That was probably the last time that I’ve done that to myself. “

Williams, who spent much of his life in North Carolina and went on to win three NCAA championships for the University of Southern California, has been a high jumper since age 12. He followed his brother, who is seven years older, into the sport.

“Whatever sport I did as a kid, I could outjump anybody, whether it be basketball, baseball, football,” Williams said. “Whatever sport I did, I was the jumping guy.”

When he hits a good jump, he said he feels like he’s flying. “I just feel it right off takeoff,” he said. “I know right when my foot comes off the ground. It’s a feeling that’s effortless. I feel like I’m literally floating up in the air.”

Rovelto said Williams is able to jump high because of his ability to convert horizontal velocity into vertical velocity at takeoff.

“Jesse is a phenomenal competitor and just has a knack for rising to the occasion,” Rovelto said. “You don’t coach that, you’re kind of born with that.”

Since they began working together in the fall of 2007, Rovelto has emphasized running mechanics, postural position and the quality of the contact with the ground at takeoff. Williams also has strength to boot – he cleaned more than 300 pounds recently.

“There are certain things that I know I don’t do well, but it’s just a part of me and the way I jump so it’s impossible to change,” Williams said. “But I try and do as many things right as possible, and when I’m doing most things right, I jump really high.”

Rovelto said that over the past few years, Williams has simply trained at a higher level, taken better care of himself and learned to handle himself better in competition. But the coach cautions that there’s very little difference between the top five or six high jumpers in the world. On any given day, anybody could win.

Although the high jump is susceptible to weather, Williams predicts that the Olympic champion might have to go slightly above his winning jump at Worlds, which was 2.35 meters (7 feet, 8 ½ inches).

Williams has also put his jumping ability to good use on the basketball court, where he has appeared in dunking exhibitions. The risk of injury is low if there is no one under the basket, said Williams, whose dunks are immortalized on YouTube along with his best high jumps.

“I like doing one of those dunks where I just throw it up and throw it down with one arm,” Williams said. “I can stick my arm in the basket; it’s kind of fun doing that every once in a while.”

A devout Christian, Williams also enjoys home improvement projects. He owns a few duplexes and spends a lot of his spare time doing updates or upkeep.

Williams just finished putting in 28 windows in his house, installed a dishwasher a couple of months ago, and did some plumbing. He wanted to reshingle his roof, but ran out of time before the Olympic Trials.

“If you can take your time at it, you can get good at it,” Williams said. “I’ll be in the middle of doing some plumbing job and I just look up a video on YouTube and there’s the answer. It makes it easy to do just about anything.”

That’s because he already knows how to fly.

Karen Rosen is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.

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