LONDON – While tennis has the Williams sisters, track and field has its own Williams sibling act.
Kendell and Devon Williams are masters of the multi-events.
Kendell, 22, is a 2016 Olympian and Team USA’s top athlete in the heptathlon going into the IAAF World Championships in London.
Devon, who at age 23 is 17 months older than his sister, made Team USA in the decathlon and has posted the top score by an American this year.
They are the first brother and sister to make a U.S. world track and field team since Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the world’s greatest heptathlete, and her brother Al, an Olympic gold medalist in the triple jump, competed at the 1987 World Indoor Championships in Indianapolis.
“It’s a short list of brother-sister duos,” said Kendell, “so we’re with some great company on that list.”
Although they both competed for the University of Georgia, Kendell and Devon haven’t been on a U.S. national team together since the Pan Am Junior Athletics Championships in 2013.
“It’s the first world championships for both of us,” said Kendell, who is ranked as the No. 6 performer in the world this year, “and so the fact that we get to experience it together, experience London together for the first time, it’s just awesome.”
She’ll compete Aug. 5-6 while he will be in action Aug. 11-12.
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University of Georgia coach Petros Kyprianou said they own the unofficial sibling decathlon/heptathlon world record.
“It is very rare, very unusual,” he said.
The Williamses have posted personal bests in almost every event this season.
At the 2017 USATF Championships in Sacramento, California, Devon made Team USA first, placing third in the decathlon. He was the leader after the first day, but cut his thumb in the pole vault, which hampered his javelin throwing. He then cramped up in the 1,500 meters as the temperature hovered around 110 degrees all day.
Two days later, he watched his younger sister win her first national title, scoring a personal best of 6,564 points to edge Erica Bougard at 6,557.
“Oh, it was exciting,” Devon said. “That’s why I’m glad I went first, because I had faith that she would be going also (to worlds), so it was a good feeling knowing that we both punched our ticket really at the same time.”
They have always been a support system for each other.
Last year, Kendell finished third at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track and Field and would eventually place 17th at the Olympic Games Rio 2016. Devon was fifth in the decathlon – a promising finish, but not there yet.
The heptathlon was at the end of the trials, and Kendell was dueling veteran heptathlete Sharon Day-Monroe for the third and final spot on the team. The second day started with the long jump, which did not go well for Kendell.
Knowing that Day-Monroe was better at the final two events -- javelin and 800-meter -- Kendell found her brother as she came off the track and told him, “I think I just blew it.” Devon assured her that she would be OK.
Kendell got through the javelin with an 81-point lead over Day-Monroe.
“Before the 800, I knew I couldn’t let Sharon beat me by 4 1/2 seconds,” Kendell said. “And she was a better 800 runner. And Devon was like, ‘Kendell, being an Olympian will last longer than the pain of running this 800. Just go out there and run it,’ and I was like, ‘Okaaay.’”
Her brother is very wise. “Yeah, I am,” Devon said. “Wise beyond my years.”
Day-Monroe ran the 800 in 2 minutes, 10.87 seconds while Kendell kept her in her sights, crossing the finish line in at 2:15.31. The final tally: 6,402 to 6,385.
“So I ran,” Kendell said, “fell across the finish line and they said I had come in third and made the team, and I look up and somehow Devon had gotten down to track level -- they don’t let people to track level that close – but he was right by the finish line. I hobbled my way over there and gave him a hug.”
Getting to his sister was almost an 11th event for Devon.
“I had to be down there and show her that I was proud of her,” he said. “I had sweet-talked my way down to the track where all the photographers were. The beauty of the multi events is you do all these events and it can still come down to the last one.”
While Kendell had her big brother to lean on, she also had a big sister of sorts at her fingertips: Joyner-Kersee, who has taken her under her wing.
“When I was freaking out, I actually would text her between events,” Kendell said, “and I was like, 'I don’t know why I’m not performing. I don’t know what’s going on,’ and she was like, ‘Relax, it’s OK. You’ve got it. Just stay focused.’ Words of encouragement.
“It’s awesome to have the world’s greatest heptathlete texting you. She’ll text me and I’m like, ‘I didn’t even know you were watching.’ She said, ‘Of course, I was watching and keeping up.’”
At the NCAA Indoor Championships in March, Kendell and Devon achieved the “sibling sweep.” Kendell won the pentathlon (the multi-events are different for indoor competition) for her record fourth straight title while Devon claimed his first national crown in the heptathlon. They just missed the sibling sweep outdoors, where Kendell won her third heptathlon title and Devon was second in the decathlon.
Kendell doesn’t envy her brother’s greater workload.
“The decathlon is super hard,” she said. “I don’t know how he does it, because when I wake up on Day 2, I’m stiff and sore, so I couldn’t imagine having to try to hurdle, pole vault and then try to run a 1,500 at the end of the day.”
Devon wouldn’t have it any other way.
“If it comes down to the 1,500,” said her brother, “I like my chances because I know I’m just going to go all out and leave it all on the track no matter what.”
At the indoor NCAA meet, Devon was down by 224 points going into the last event, the 1,000 meters.
“I went out and just went crazy and ran as hard as I could,” he said.
Kendell was in the stands with their parents, Blane, whom they call “the Pacer,” and Terri, the family videographer.
“Once we found out that Devon had won,” Kendell said, “From that moment, I literally started running around. I was so excited and I was just running around the stadium and screaming until the security was like, ‘You can’t do that.’”
No one can stop her when she’s on the track. Growing up in Marietta, Ga., Kendell started running when she was 7.
“The very first (activity) I actually did was ballet, and I was horrible at it,” she said. “So, my parents took me out of that. I tried basketball. I was worse at that. I think I tried gymnastics for a period of time. I was horrible at that. So I think track was really the only thing I was good at, so my parents were like, ‘OK, looks like this is her place.’”
Devon played baseball, football, basketball, soccer and wrestled besides running track. He was good at everything, but track was his favorite.
“With team sports, you have to rely on your coach and your teammates a lot and I just liked the individuality of track,” said Devon, whose personal best of 8,345 points from a meet in Athens, Ga., in April ranks as the No. 8 performance in the world this year.
When Kendell was 9 and Devon was 11, their father decided they should try the hurdles. Neither showed any fear. Then he kept adding events.
“Eventually my dad realized, ‘We have all the components of the pentathlon,’” Kendell said. “’All we have to do is convince her to run the 800 and teach her to throw the shot put.’
“I worked a lot on the shot put because I was just so bad at it. So bad at it.”
Devon’s weaker events were the discus, pole vault and javelin.
“Devon is my real success story,” said Kyprianou. “He’s a guy who came out of high school scoring 6,300 and now he’s 2,000 points better which is unheard of. But he’s one of the hungriest guys I’ve ever been around and coached. He wants to be the best. People don’t realize how high-level he is because he’s always in a way following his sister. Girls mature much quicker -- but guys it takes them forever to develop.
“It took him a while and he finally matured and he’s very, very event-savvy. He watches videos and he was in Rio watching his sister. He experienced first-hand, ‘Hey, I can do this thing.’ Next thing you know, he’s out there, scoring over 8,200 points and being on Team USA.”
Kendell followed her brother to Georgia. He graduated in May and she’ll graduate in December. They don’t train together or live together, but each knows the other is nearby if needed.
Kyprianou said the siblings couldn’t have more different personalities – she’s the extrovert, he’s the introvert – but they share a work ethic and determination.
“She is a fearless competitor,” said Kyprianou, “but if you get to know her, she never talks about track. I’ve never seen this before, but when that girl lines up, it will take a collegiate record to beat her. It will take 110 percent to compete with her and that’s what I really like about her. There’s not much talking, it’s a lot of doing.”
Kendell said a lot of what she has learned in the heptathlon has carried over into life. “The heptathlon teaches you a lot about resilience,” she said. “If I don’t do well on a test, I know I have to let that go and say, ‘OK, how am I going to prepare and get ready for the next one?’”
Kendell has been fortunate to avoid major injuries, but Devon hasn’t been so lucky: hamstring, sprained ankle, hip flexor and even food poisoning.
“I think that all those injuries forced me to train harder this season and focus more,” he said. “So I cut out a lot of distractions. I just train and eat and sleep.”
His sister’s heart went out to him when he was hurt.
“I hate that he’s had to go through so much,” Kendell said. “It seems like it’s thing after thing after thing. So for the longest time, he hasn’t been able to show the world what he could do. Even when we made the Pan Am team together years ago, in the first event he hurt something and he had to pull out of the competition.
“I know that he’s very thankful for his experiences because they’ve taught him how to persevere and push through and let it go and move on. I know that he’s happy now to finally have a healthy, good season. This is the right time. It’s a world championship year and he made the team.”
And they’re going together.