Toni-Ann Williams set to make history for Cal, Jamaica gymnastics in Rio
RIO DE JANEIRO -- Chalk one up to Google. And a persistent mother.
A few years back, Cal gymnastics coach Justin Howell received a phone call from Marlene Hylton-Williams. Her daughter was a bright young gymnast and had whittled down her list of potential colleges down to five. Cal was on the shortlist, but Howell, admittedly unaware of the woman’s daughter, had to do some quick research.
“Literally, while I was on the phone, I googled her and watched videos, and I was, like, ‘This kid has so much power it’s ridiculous. Just raw power,’” Howell said. “I told her mom, ‘I’ll be on a plane tomorrow.’ And I got on the plane and I went to Maryland and saw her working out.”
A day later and three time zones away, Howell found himself in a gym watching Williams in motion. He made a phone call to his wife, Elisabeth Crandall-Howell, who is also Cal’s associate head coach.
“I called her while I was in the gym and, said, I’m going to offer her a scholarship immediately,” Howell said. “That was it.”
So, who was that powerful kid? Her name is Toni-Ann Williams and she’ll be representing Jamaica at the all-around gymnastics event on Sunday in the 2016 Summer Olympics. Howell will be there, too, by her side as Jamaica’s national team coach.
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The two received a proper welcome once they touched down in Brazil earlier this week, snapping photos with Jamaican track legend Usain Bolt. Throughout her impressive two-year career in Berkeley, Williams has often paid homage to Bolt by incorporating his trademark point-to-the-sky celebration into her routines, something she plans to do again on Sunday.
“I posted it on Instagram and he commented and said it was really cool,” Williams said. “Hopefully they’ll take pictures or maybe he’ll be there, not sure. Hopefully he can see it.”
A video posted by Toni-Ann (@toniann_williams) on
When she steps on to the mat Sunday, Williams will make history for both Cal and the Jamaican national program, as the first woman to represent either program at the Olympics. It’s the culmination of a journey that started several years ago.
Though she was born and raised in the Baltimore area, Williams started competing for Jamaica when she was 15 years old. Her mother and father, Tony Williams, met each other about 25 years ago when they emigrated to the United States from Jamaica. Now their daughter will be decked out in the black, green and gold while performing on the sport’s biggest stage.
“I’m always running around for training and meetings, so it’s easy to get caught up,” Williams said. “But at night I realize, like, wow, ‘I’m actually in the Olympic village right now. This is actually happening.’ I feel like when I’m in the opening ceremony, it’s definitely going to feel like it’s a real moment.”
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When Williams made her first trips down to Jamaica’s gyms, she noticed the facilities were subpar, along with the equipment. Heck, a bunch of the kids didn’t even have leotards to train in. But she has since dedicated herself to the Jamaica Amateur Gymnastics Association, with the help of her mom behind the scenes, who has become a key ambassador for the sport in the country.
“It’s something I’ve always dreamed of for Jamaica, “Williams said, “someone from the program go to the Olympics and represent gymnastics for Jamaica. All of our hard work, my hard work, my mom’s and the federation’s has paid off.”
Back in April, Williams had a decision to make: NCAA Championships or Olympic Test Trial? With the support of her program and Coach Howell, Williams went big and it’s the reason she’s in Brazil today. With a 38th place finish and 52.931 score in the all-around, Williams secured a spot in Rio.
Looking back at her experiences in Berkeley, Williams has plenty of good memories to pick from. She burst on to the scene as Pac-12 Freshman of the Year in 2015, built on her success this year and has racked up a total of four All-American honors in her two seasons with Cal.
But the Pac-12 is one thing, the Summer Games another. Still, Howell said Williams is ready for the moment.
“I’d like to say that her experience as a student-athlete at Cal, competing against the Pac-12, has definitely shaped who she is as a competitor and really helped her mature into a confident gymnast,” Howell said. “It’s exciting that it’s going to culminate here at the Olympics.”
So what are her expectations for Sunday?
“I just want to honestly go out, hit four-for-four and represent Jamaica well,” Williams said. “My scores and things like that are up to the judges. As long as I put out my best gymnastics, that’s all I can ask of myself.”
Oh, and a little Usain Bolt move, please.