By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
How do you define pressure?
For a Division I student-athlete it’s being a champion trying to repeat.
For a Division I student-athlete at Georgia Tech it’s being a champion trying to repeat while also maintaining a grade-point average that will get you to your career goal and befits representation of one of the world’s most academically prestigious institutes of higher learning.
Jeanine Williams has lived with the latter for the past year. She was 60 meter hurdles champion — both indoors and outdoors, the seventh ACC student-athlete ever to achieve that — while also carrying a 4.0 GPA in Biochemistry with an eye toward medical school.
It’s been a lot but as Williams prepares to wrap up her indoor career this weekend at NCAA Indoors at Birmingham CrossPlex in Birmingham, Alabama, she’s no longer feeling any of that stress. It’s almost as if she’s cleared that fifth hurdle and all that’s left is a sprint to the finish line.
“I’m very excited about heading into my second indoor nationals,” she said. “What I learned from last year is that I can’t let the pressure get to me. Since it was my first one I was a little nervous. I didn’t know what to expect. But now, it’s like, I’ve just got to go out there and compete how I’ve been competing the whole season and just keep my mind right.”
Williams won’t be going in as the two-time defending Indoor ACC Champion, as she finished second at ACCs. But that result doesn’t have Williams down. Not at all.
She ran a season-best 8.09 in the finals and only a blazing 7.95 time from Miami’s Tiara McMinn, tying the second-fastest time in the nation this season, beat her.
“I think I kind of let the whole, ‘Defending Champion’ pressure kind of get to me because I thought everyone is expecting a lot,” she said. “I usually have a good mindset when it gets to the meet but I think that kind of got to me just a little bit. Going into this meet I don’t have anything to worry about because no eyes will be on me. So I can just go out there and do my best and not worry about what everyone else is thinking.”
One person whose thoughts do matter to Williams is Jumps/Hurdles coach Nat Page.
Page, who also will be busy this weekend keeping track of triple jumper Bria Matthews, believes how Jeanine dealt with the pressure of wearing the target of “defending champion” served as the latest test of her mental strength.
“She’s really learning how to compete now,” said Page. “She’s come a long way. We had to learn how to focus and how to compete and be competitive. She’s done a great job with that. One of her goals is she wants to be on the world stage and, obviously, collegiate track and field is a great stepping stone for that. But hats off to her to come in and learn a lot of things that it takes to go ahead and run at this level and the next level.”
That next level for Williams includes going after 7.98.
“We’re eyeballing the school record by Shantia Moss, who was (2007) national champion in the 60 hurdles,” he said. “Indoor has been going really well. (Jeanine)’s been running really consistent. She’s run 8.10, 8.11, 8.10, 8.12. All those marks are in the top 11 in the country. We were looking at performing a little bit better than that and practices have been looking really good. If we just go and focus on what we’ve been practicing and what we need to do to run well, things might shake out pretty good for us.”
While Williams tries to meet her and Page’s expectations for the 60 meter hurdles, she has certainly met the high all-around standard set by the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The ACC named her a 2019 Weaver-James-Corrigan Postgraduate Scholarship Award winner. She was one of four Yellow Jackets — joining James Clark (golf), teammate Amy Ruiz (cross country/track) and Brad Stewart (football) — along with 52 student-athletes throughout the conference to earn the award, which recognizes student-athletes intent on pursuing a graduate degree who have excelled on the field, in the classroom and in the community. It includes a $6,000 stipend toward grad school.
It was maybe the first time she scaled back expectations of herself.
“I didn’t know much about the ACC Post-Grad Scholarship,” said Williams, who is already two-time All-ACC Academic Team, was 2018 USTFCCCA (U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association) All-Academic Team and last year was a semifinalist for the Arthur Ashe Jr. Award.
“When I got the email about being nominated I just did the forms that they sent but I wasn’t too sure I was going to get it because there are a lot of student-athletes in the ACC that are very strong academic-wise and athletically. Getting that nomination email made me feel good about what I’ve been doing in the classroom and on the track. I just hoped I’d get it. I am grateful to have been chosen for that.”
Williams, who was especially happy to share the award with her teammate, Ruiz, has plans to use the scholarship money when she applies to medical school. She’s already compiled a top-five that includes Emory, Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Southern California and Howard. To that end, Jeanine plans on taking the MCATs (Medical College Admission Test) this fall — her scores are valid for three years — while she pursues a pro track career and possibly a run for her native Jamaica in the Olympics.
With all that to look forward to, this weekend’s NCAAs are simply another hurdle for her to clear.
She’s confident as she knows the track, having run it earlier this year at the BSC Panther Indoor Icebreaker as well as while attending Auburn prior to transferring to Georgia Tech. Combine that with her experience at Nationals and the shedding of others’ expectations and you have what she believes is a recipe for success. Practices have backed that up.
“We’ve been having some really good practices out of the blocks with gun starts,” said Williams, who will head to Birmingham on Wednesday, following her Biochem lab. “Thursday usually we have a shake-up at the track to feel out the track, have some starts, then Friday you’re ready to go.
“I feel like I’ll be okay. A lot of people believe that track is a slow track, it’s not as fast as other tracks,” she added. “I don’t think it matters at this point. We just all have to go out there and compete at our best and see who comes out on top.”