The Good Word | by Jon Cooper
Jeanine Williams has never been one to blow her own horn.
Even as she posed for publicity pictures with her numerous silver and gold medals hanging off her arm in a takeoff on the “Michael Phelps pose,” her attitude was more satirical than boastful.
The Kingston, Jamaica, native is still more than a tad uncomfortable hearing people blow her horn for her.
It’s a discomfort she’s learned to live with, as in her three years at Georgia Tech, Williams set — and re-set — the standard for the women’s 100m hurdles and the 60m hurdles indoors while similarly setting a standard for academic excellence, community service and, most important, humility in combining it all.
Want to talk about what makes an Everyday Champion? Georgia Tech director of athletics Todd Stansbury has gone on record as simply saying ‘Jeanine Williams’.
“Jeanine Williams, she’s a hurdler, an all-American, she won the ACC Indoor, I think she has the fourth-fastest time in the world this year, she has a 3.75 in Biochemistry and after the Olympics she’s going to go to medical school. That’s an everyday champion!” said Stansbury in a speech to distinguished alumni back in April.
Williams’ response to that remark is her typical, proud but measured.
“It makes me feel like my hard work is not going unnoticed,” she said. “It actually makes me feel good about myself. I’m a humble person so I’m not going to be bragging about it but it’s definitely a good feeling.
“To me, an ‘Everyday Champion’ is someone that not only excels academically or in whichever sport they play, but they’re also in the community helping out, being a leader,” she added.
Williams was actually describing herself to a “GT” and that excellence has been anything but unnoticed, especially by her peers.
They recognized her at the 2018 Yellow Jackets Celebration, naming her Female Athlete of the Year, Performance of the Year (when she and teammates Marinice Bauman, Kenya Collins and Raven Stewart broke the school 4×100 shuttle relay, with the ninth-fastest time in NCAA history). She also received an ACC Postgraduate Scholarship Award. Both honors meant the world to Williams, especially as neither was expected.
Of course, she never expected to be at Georgia Tech.
“When I was being recruited I did not know anything about Georgia Tech,” said Williams, who originally attended Auburn. “I went (to Auburn) for my freshman year then I decided to transfer. One of my old teammates from high school, knew Coach (Nat) Page, so she put us in contact. I met him that year when I went to World Juniors in Poland. When I came back, I came to Atlanta to go visit. I was like, ‘Wow, this is where I fit in.’ So I decided to come to Tech. It was a good decision.”
She fit in perfectly in the classroom and on the track.
Williams qualified for NCAA Outdoors all three seasons on the Flats and in two of her three indoor seasons. She was ACC Indoor and Outdoor champion in 2018.
She capped off her career by setting the school record in her final ACC Outdoors race, going 12.72. Two weeks later at the preliminaries of the NCAA East Regional, she ran a blazing 12.62, the second-fastest time in the nation and the third-fastest in the world in 2019.
“That was good!” she said, although she was admittedly a little light on race details. “I could not even tell you what happened in that race if someone asked. I just knew I came through the line, I looked at the time and was like, ‘Wow!’ Coach Page and I always talked about getting to 12.60, getting to 12.60 and I finally got there. I was like, ‘Okay, this is a good feeling.’”
She added to the good feelings two weeks later at the 2019 NCAAA Outdoor Track and Field Championship in Austin, Texas, where she finished second in her heat, with the sixth-best time overall, then came in fourth in the finals to earn her first, first team all-America honors, in her third and final try at Nationals.
“That’s something I always wanted,” she said. “I think each year I got to NCAAs I kind of freaked myself out. This year I just let everything go and I just competed the best I wanted to. Fourth wasn’t bad to me, the time I ran wasn’t far off from my personal best, either, so I was happy.”
As it seemingly always the case with Williams, the achievement was more about with whom she was able to share it.
“It was special to me because my mom came down to Austin,” she recalled. “After the semifinals, when I got into the finals, it was like, ‘I have nothing to lose at this point.’ So I could just run and see where I place. Having my mom there was good.”
There’s been a lot of memories made at Georgia Tech on the track with her teammates, refining and honing her skill as one of the nation’s — and soon, she hopes, one of the world’s — fastest hurdlers; in the classroom, with fellow students earning her degree in Biochemistry as she works towards medical school; and, most important, with the Atlanta community, where she’s grown and matured into a caring, model citizen.
She credits her three years at the Institute for that growth.
“I think I’m better and more of a leader,” she said. “Because I was the co-captain of the track and field teams has taught me to be a better leader. I’m more outspoken. I’m also a part of SAAB, the Student-Athlete Advisory Board, and also part of the Captain’s Table, in which we have to discuss issues in the Athletic Association and all of our teammates. I’m more outspoken, I’m more confident in things, because I was a little timid coming in.
“Georgia Tech definitely has helped me with that,” she added. “With (assistant athletics director for student-athlete development) Leah (Thomas) and the Total Person Program, I’ve been in different community-service situations, where I’m able to help out, like the Michael Isenhour Toy Drive, there are other community service things that we have done. I’ve also done stuff outside of Tech. I’ve helped out the homeless. Since I’m a newly Greek initiate in the Sigma Gamma sorority, I definitely have had a chance to also do community service with that. So Georgia Tech has definitely opened more community-service opportunities for me.”
Put it all together and the realization that she was not doing it in a vacuum makes last year’s YJC so special to her.
“I was surprised that things I was doing in the classroom and on the track would be noticed,” she said. “That, actually, I would say, is my proudest moment.”
Williams also is proud of completing the double of being an all-American and an academic all-American. The latter is especially important and the curriculum especially instrumental.
“I would say the academic hardships at Tech have made me more outspoken and given me more confidence and that has toughened me up to be a stronger individual in terms of I don’t back down from challenges anymore,” said Williams. “I know that if things are too hard, I know that there is a light at the end of that pathway. So I just keep going at it.”
“It’s pretty hard. I’m not going to lie,” she added. “It’s pretty hard because they both take a lot of attention and different kinds of attention. But at some point they have similarities that — they’re both hard, they both require you to be more confident and with that, I just stuck with it. I always had my mom in the background. She said, ‘Keep pushing.’ She thinks sometimes she’s my coach and I let her be. She’s a teacher so she understands the hard stuff but she still pushes me to be great.”
Jeanine has advice for future generations coming to Georgia Tech who seek to push themselves.
“Believe in yourself, keep working at it and know that some days will be really hard. It may seem like it’s impossible,” she said. “I always tell people to ask their teammates, ask around. It’s better to ask people for help than to struggle on your own because we’ve all been through it. The upperclassmen can always help you. There are always resources available to help.”
Williams, who will be on her way to Jamaica in the coming days, will still be around Georgia Tech, training with Coach Page as she prepares to embark on a professional track career.
She went out of her way to reassure her mom, that she knows track is not forever and that she has not foregone plans of attending medical school — her goal is to be a pediatric surgeon or get into obstetrics or gynecology.
“I plan to go professional with track, so I’ll be running on the circuit for a couple of years and then when I’m finished I’ll go to med school,” she said. “So track now and then as soon as I’ve accomplished what I want to in my professional track career then I will go to med school.”