Although a recent injury has sidelined 2016 Jamaican Olympian Toni-Ann Williams from competing for the University of California-Berkeley this season, she is determined to remain an icon for her country's national program and a valuable member of her collegiate team.
Williams, who was born in Maryland to Jamaican parents, became Jamaica's first gymnastics Olympian when she competed last summer in Rio following a long and successful season for Cal. A veteran of the 2011, 2013 and 2015 World Championships, Williams suffered a season-ending Achilles' tendon injury in early February. She is in the process of recovery and looks forward to future international and collegiate competitions.
In this IG Online interview, Williams discusses the impact that her recent injury, Rio and her role-model status have had on her ever-evolving gymnastics career.
Williams with track star Usain Bolt in Rio
IG: How and when did you injure yourself?
TAW: It was a couple of days before we left for the (Feb. 4) Utah meet, in workout. I had been feeling kind of tight in my (left) Achilles and calf that day. My trainer said, "Just roll it out and make sure it's super loose." Right before a tumbling pass, I thought, "OK, this is going to be my last tumbling pass, and then I'm going to be done for the day." Then, on the takeoff for my double pike, I felt it snap. In my mind I was like, "How am I going to land this without hurting myself any further?" So I kind of landed on all fours. I cried for about five minutes and then the pain went away, because that's what happens when you snap an Achilles. It's not really painful. I knew exactly what happened as soon as I did it.
IG: How are you doing in terms of recovery at this point?
TAW: I got my stitches out a few weeks ago and I'm allowed to walk without crutches, so it's been good. It's a slow recovery but it's definitely different for me to be in this position — not competing — but I definitely enjoy being in the cheerleader role for the team, and bring the spirit and attitude. It's going to be a long recovery but I'm excited to get back in there.
IG: Being used to competing week in and week out, not to mention for Jamaica, how are you psychologically coping with being sidelined?
TAW: It was definitely hard for me. A few weeks ago I had a breakdown. I just cried. I don't know if it was mourning or grieving over something you have taken away from you, but once I went through that, I realized that it will get better from here. I started walking, and I know my recovery is going to go in great places and I'm going to come back stronger than I was before. It's been challenging to be in that mental space, but having the team behind me and helping me has helped me get through it.
IG: When do you think you'll be back doing actual gymnastics?
TAW: By mid- to end of summer, I can hopefully start to do everything again and be my normal self, but I will definitely, definitely be back for next season.
IG: What was your main take-away, or revelation, from competing at the Rio Olympics?
TAW: During Rio I actually had a knee injury that resulted in knee surgery a couple of weeks later when I got back. But going through that and dealing with my knee and competing for Jamaica after competing for Cal made me realize how strong I am and that I can get through things like my Achilles injury. I can take that experience and bring it to this (Cal) team. It's a team that's growing and going in great places. I can use my experience and grit, going through all of that, to bring it to the team.
Williams on vault for Cal
IG: What was your personal experience in Rio like?
TAW: It was so much fun. I was starstruck the entire time. Usain Bolt was in the room below me. Every little girl dreams of going to the Olympics, and for me to reach that goal — there are no words I can use to describe it. I even got a Rio tattoo, on my left biceps — nowhere scandalous! But having these rings reminds me of where I've been and where I want to go. Continuing to compete for Jamaica and Cal keeps me focused and staying on the right path.
IG: What plans do you have in terms of resuming your international career?
TAW: Coming back from my injury is what I'm focused on right now, and finishing out my last season at Cal. I plan on training internationally once I graduate, continuing to compete for Jamaica. There's still a lot I have to do for the program in Jamaica. Kids need role models and gyms need to be built, and my competing helps that progress. I have more to do and I'm not going to stop after I graduate.
IG: How do you manage the extra responsibility you carry as the "face" of Jamaican gymnastics?
TAW: Making that milestone for Jamaica is something I had been preparing myself for. Being the only gymnast to compete for Jamaica since I was 15 has been a lot on me, and I've been able to handle the pressure. Coming to Cal and being part of this team has also helped me become a leader in my own sense of the word. It was a lot of fun and pressure in Rio, and no matter how I performed, I knew Jamaica was proud and a lot of people saw gymnastics as a sport that can now be in Jamaica, which was the goal the entire time.
IG: What's been happening with the team since Rio?
TAW: My sister, Maya Williams, is also on the national team. She competed at the (2015) World Championships in Glasgow. They've been having training camps in my home gym while I've been out here competing. It's still going. My sister is holding it down for me till I'm back!
To subscribe or to purchase back issues to International Gymnast magazine, click here.