Williams gunning for spot on Team USA

Williams gunning for spot on Team USA

Most kids that grow up in this country dream of being at the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning in the seventh game of the World Series, or having the ball in their hand in the final seconds of the Super Bowl or game seven of the NBA Finals, or being awarded a penalty shot as time expires in game seven of the Stanley Cup Finals. But those other boys and girls that would rather run or swim, they dream about a different kind of sporting glory. They dream about pulling on a red, white and blue uniform that says USA on the front. Hunter Williams ’15 was just like those kids growing up.

While the glaring majority of those kids won’t have a chance to see those dreams come true, Williams is writing his own script and chasing that dream in a way he never imagined.

“When I put that USA uniform on for the first time, I was just speechless,” said Williams. “There’s never been another moment in my life that felt that way. It’s indescribable.”

A few moments after zipping that USA uniform up, Williams hurled himself head first down a sheet of ice at 65 miles per hour at the Lake Placid Sliding Center during the USA National Skeleton Championships.

Williams was a district champion sprinter in high school at nearby Seneca Valley before making the move 20 minutes north to Slippery Rock for his freshman year in 2011. He wasted little time in making an impact on his new team, scoring points in two events at the indoor conference championship meet and teaming to help break the school record in the 4×400-meter relay.

That would be a trend over the next four years, as Williams went on to place in at least one event at all eight Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference championship meets during his career. He won three championships in individual events and still owns the indoor record in the open 400-meter dash (48.25 seconds) and the 4×400-meter relay (3:16.19), a mark he and teammates Monte Chapman, James Chandler and Jacob VanHouten set and broke multiple times over four years.

Williams closed his career at The Rock by sweeping the 200-meter titles at the 2015 PSAC indoor and outdoor championships before graduating that May with a degree in geographical information technology.

Speed has never been an issue in his life, so it’s no surprise he wasted little time jumping immediately into his career. He began working at Cabot Oil and Gas shortly after graduation, a position he still holds today.

For most collegiate track and field athletes, especially below the Division I level, that’s where the story ends. You get four years of competition and then you might keep working out, training and entering some occasional competitions for a few years, but for most, the feeling of being on a team, competing towards a goal and pushing yourself to the limits, ends on graduation day.

“I got a great education at Slippery Rock and landed a job in my field right away,” says Williams. “I kept working out and staying in shape, but for the most part I was transitioning to working full-time and leaving athletics behind me, until I had a conversation with Hans.”

The Hans in question is fellow Slippery Rock alumnus and current volunteer track and field coach Hans Lubich, who had read about former track and field sprinters transitioning to the sports of bobsledding and skeleton and began training for the USA summer combines.

“After I talked to Hans about it a bit, I started to feel that fire to keep competing and trying to push myself towards a new goal, so I got really serious about it around the summer of 2016.”

Williams’ first step in the process of trying to reach the ultimate goal of competing for Team USA was performing well enough in a series of athletic agility tests at a summer combine in Lake Placid in late June of 2017.

“Everything they do is on a scoring system at the combine,” says Williams. “The better you do in each event, the more points you score. You have to score more than 500 points to be invited back to attend a rookie camp. I scored 531 points and was second out of all the guys at my combine.”

That Williams scored well in the physical aptitude tests should be no surprise. He was well accustomed to what it takes to train for explosive speed and agility thanks to his training at Slippery Rock.

“Honestly, I owe a lot of my success to the track team and coaches at SRU,” says Williams. “I learned so much about dedication, being able to push myself and be accountable and how to work hard and smart in my training. I’m not sure I could have made this transition without that training.”

Williams was invited back to Lake Placid in August of 2017 for a rookie camp, which still didn’t feature any training on ice. This was more tests and the beginning of learning the techniques and skills for push starts for both bobsledding and skeleton.

Williams tested well again, to no surprise. The test scores from the additional drills at the rookie camp are added to the combine scores. Athletes that have a combined score above 700 are classified as “emerging elite” and receive the opportunity to continue in the program. Williams topped the 700-point margin and began planning for more trips to Lake Placid, but 7-10 day trips to Lake Placid aren’t easy to do when you’re trying to balance a full-time career.

“I used up most of my vacation days early in the process when I was trying to advance further in the system,” said Williams. “Once I reached the emerging elite status, my employer began to embrace the idea that an employee could be chasing a dream like this and they let me start working remotely during my training trips. I can’t overstate how important that has been in my ability to keep chasing this dream.”

Williams attended his first driving school in October of 2017. It was here, that he realized he wouldn’t end up in a bobsled.

“I tried for both at the beginning,” says Williams. “But I’m not big enough to be a bobsledder. They look for pushers for bobsled to be at least 225 pounds, and with my frame that’s just not going to happen. I have the perfect body type for skeleton though, so I started focusing harder on just skeleton at that camp.”

By his fourth trip to Lake Placid in January of 2018, it was finally time to get on the ice and do some sliding.

“They started us out at the lowest start point around curve nine of 20 and just give you a little push, so you aren’t running and never reach full speed,” says Williams. “My first run, I was going between 40-45 MPH and I made it to the bottom, which was a relief and a rush all at the same time.”

They continued to move up the track to different starting points, adding about 10 MPH of speed at each new stop, until reaching the top of the track for their first full runs.

“It’s actually easier to go faster in this sport,” said Williams. “Things flow together better on the track the faster you go, so I was excited but obviously nervous my first full run. I ended up between 60-65 MPH and I made it the whole way down, which was one of the biggest rushes I’ve ever had in my life.

It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows during the training though. Williams crashed hard, twice, on the same day in early February. The second crash damaged his sled beyond repair and cut short his ability to slide for a number of days.

“Head first into the wall at 60 MPH is as scary as it sounds,” says Williams. “The first time it happened, it took me a while to realize I came off my sled and was sliding down the track on my back. I went around two whole turns before I came to a stop. I got checked out and tried to go right back up for another run so it wouldn’t stay in my mind, but my sled had a bit of damage and I crashed again, a lot harder. I was banged up a bit and had to take a few days off, get a new sled and work my way back up from the lower starts again to get the feeling back.”

Less than two weeks later, Williams stepped to the line for his first ever competition run at the Eastern Regionals on Feb. 16.

“I jogged at the start,” Williams jokes. “I just wanted to get used to competing and the full motion. And I didn’t finish last, so that was a good week.”

It all came together finally in his most recent trip to Lake Placid in early March at the National Championships, when he put that USA skinsuit on, the same BMW sponsored Under Armour suit that the professionals wear.

Williams continued to improve, as he did his entire collegiate career. He reached what they call the “push standard” time for the Lake Placid track and he hit personal bests in his starts and his total time down the track on the way to placing 17th in a field of 21 professionals.

“I’ll never forget competing that weekend,” says Williams. “In college, my proudest moments were breaking the school records with the relay. They weren’t my own individual titles, but those moments with my teammates. It’s been such an interesting transition to training alone and preparing for this, but now I feel like I’m working hard for the betterment of a team again.”

It just so happens, that team is Team USA.

Williams will attend another combine in the summer of 2018 with the goal of officially making the US Professional Development team within the next two years.