Lauryn Williams learned about investment strategy while studying to become a financial planner. Earning an Olympic bobsled silver medal last February in Sochi, Russia, after spending only six months in the sport is a great return on investment in anyone’s ledger.
Williams could have retired as one of only five athletes in history to win medals in both the summer — as a sprinter in track and field — and winter editions of the Olympic Games.
But this push athlete felt a pull to return to bobsled that was too powerful to ignore.
“It brought joy into my life,” Williams said.
She credits “60 percent the people, 40 percent the surge of adrenaline. People are just really nice. I have such a good experience.”
Williams rejoined the U.S. bobsled team this week in Koenigssee, Germany, and plans to remain through the world championships in Winterberg, Germany, Feb. 23-March 8.
“The scary part of it is she can get a lot better now that she’s got a year under her belt,” said U.S. bobsled coach Brian Shimer.
On Friday, Williams will push the KOA-wrapped BMW sled for Olympic bronze-medal pilot Jamie Greubel Poser, with whom she won gold and silver world cup medals last season.
“I missed it terribly,” said Williams, who won her Olympic silver medal with driver Elana Meyers Taylor. “I only got to do it for six months and I fell in love with it.”
When last season ended, “I kind of left it open-ended,” Williams added. “I said, ‘I’m pretty sure you guys won’t see me, but never say never.’”
Williams, who turned 31 in September, has given a lot of thought to life after athletics.
“The whole thing for me was realizing what it means to transition,” she said.
“Initially, I felt like to transition you’ve got to go cold turkey on something, and that’s not necessarily true.”
She saw flexibility and a shorter commitment in the 2014-15 World Cup season. The U.S. coaching staff was also willing to accommodate her schedule.
To pursue her financial planning studies in Dallas, Williams skipped the first part of the world cup season. After establishing her fitness by winning the 2014 U.S. National Bobsled Push Championships in Lake Placid, New York, and attending a training camp in Park City, Utah, Williams missed races in Lake Placid and Calgary, Alberta. She also did not compete in the opening race of the season’s second half last weekend in Altenberg, Germany.
However, upon her return Williams quickly earned a place in one of the three sleds. Coaches decide the pairings of push athletes and drivers based on performance and chemistry.
In the latest world cup driver rankings, Meyers Taylor is No. 1, Greubel Poser is No. 3 and Jazmine Fenlator is No. 6.
Shimer welcomed back Williams, who last season “was getting better each time she stepped on the track,” he said.
He knew she had potential based on her track and field medals. The three-time summer Olympian was the 2004 Athens silver medalist in the 100-meter and won gold on the 400-meter relay in London in 2012. Because of a recurring injury, Williams was looking to retire from track and field in the summer of 2013 when hurdler Lolo Jones talked to her about bobsled.
“The first time she pushed the sled,” Shimer said of Williams, ”although it looked not good at all — it looked terrible — she was fast from the get-go.
“Genetically, just the way she runs is very, very adaptive to pushing a sled. Her athleticism alone sets her apart from everybody else. She just had to dial in her technique, which took her those six months to get really efficient at it.”
Shimer said he was surprised Williams wanted to come back, but understood her motivation.
“She wants to help the team as much as she can,” he said. “I saw this in Lolo as well. They’re coming from an individual sport where you’re not reliant on a team. When they’re down, they don’t have the competitors come over to help pick them up and pat them on the back and say, ‘You did great,’ and help them through those rough times.
“When you come to bobsled, you’ve got a team. Even though there are teams within a team, you’re still Team USA and you’re not out there to beat up on each other. You’re there to pull everybody through.”
In track and field, Williams said, “All you’ve got to do is show up with your shoes and you’re good to go.”
But in bobsled, the athletes have to prepare the runners, giving Williams her very first blood blister in Park City in November 2013.
“The main thing is just the culture,” Williams said. “Bobsled is very family-oriented, very small. It’s very hands-on. You’ve got to do the dirty work, and I think it just reiterated some of the principles you’re raised with that you forget about — the idea that no one does the work but you. I think I kind of got a little spoiled and a little entitled. This is a good reminder that your hard work really pays off.”
Williams said her experience at the London 2012 Olympic Games prepared her for bobsled, though she didn’t know it at the time. As an alternate on the relay, she ran in the preliminaries, but not the final. All team members received gold medals.
“I was the alternate on the relay, and some people kind of turn their nose up at that, like, ‘Oh you didn’t make it or you failed,’” Williams said, “but it was the most rewarding experience because I really learned what it meant to work together as a team, and I think it set me up perfectly to transition over into bobsled, into a team sport.”
Williams said her track skills allow her to not only accelerate the sled, but keep it going. “You get to that top-end speed and some people can move it pretty well on the front end,” she said, “but then they’re getting tired before it’s time to get in and they’re losing velocity.”
Williams admits that she hasn’t yet mastered the art of pulling the brake.
“It’s knowing how hard to pull and just really feeling like you’re in control of the sled when you pull the brakes.
Yet Williams, who does a track walk when she arrives at the track, boasts that she is one of the few female brakemen who can count the turns so doesn’t have to be told when to brake.
“On the men’s side they kind of require it, but on the women’s side, they usually tap you at the end of the run and tell you,” she said. “But I know the end of the run and I know where I am on the track.”
Williams had help with her personal learning curve when she joined the sport.
“It was a perfect storm,” she said. “The experience that was on that team and their willingness to teach me everything I needed to know is what got me to where I was last year.”
She professes no yearning to drive. “I’m comfortable as a passenger,” Williams said, adding, “I said that loud because Elana’s walking by me.”
With the next Olympic Games set for Rio de Janeiro in 2016, Lolo Jones returned to track and field. Williams doesn’t see that path for herself.
“I think track was 20 pounds ago,” she said with a laugh. “I think I could lose 10 pounds or so — that’s where I’ll hope to be as a retired athlete — but I don’t know that I’ll ever see 130 pounds again.”
She also is making no commitments to stay in bobsled through the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games.
“Like I said, ‘I’m never saying never,’” Williams said. “Elana’s trying to handcuff me. Every time it’s time for me to leave again, she’s like, ‘Wait, where are you going? What are you doing?’ She tries to hide my bag and all these shenanigans.’”
When Williams finally does hang up her helmet, she has a finance degree from Miami and an MBA. She wants to help athletes with financial literacy and stability by becoming their financial planner.
“My long term goal is to work for the U.S. Olympic Committee,” Williams said. “We have benefits that are offered to us as Olympic athletes, so I’d like to be one of those benefits that are offered at no cost. That’s my dream job.”
She calls athletes in Olympic sports “a niche market that’s very often overlooked.”
Williams said that in the extreme cases where athletes have lived out of their cars, they need help with financial budgeting. At the other end of the spectrum, well-paid swimmers and track and field athletes also need guidance with taxation of prize money in various countries and handling bills while they’re away for months.
“Even though it’s a good living, it’s not like NFL football players, so we kind of fall through the gaps in relation to people knowing how to treat us or being interested in even working with us as financial planners,” Williams said. “I think I have a lot of value to add in that area.”
Shimer, a five-time Olympian himself, said he wishes he’d had a financial planner.
“It’s certainly something that I think would help all the athletes that come into a sport to actually make it a career,” he said. “We lose a lot of athletes early on because they start thinking about their future. Athletes can certainly prepare a lot better for when they do walk away from the sport.”
Williams said some athletes are already asking for advice. “It’s good to know,” she said, “that people think of me and trust me enough that they’re interested in working with me already.”
But for now, Williams has still got work to do in the sled.
Karen Rosen is an Atlanta-based sportswriter who has covered 14 Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.