EUGENE, Ore. – Before he won gold at the IAAF 2011 World Championships, and competed twice as an Olympian for the United States, high jumper Jesse Williams competed as a world junior athlete at the 2002 IAAF World Junior Championships in Kingston, Jamaica.
The experience was one that Williams describes as a “great motivational moment,” one that would drive him through a solid college high jump career and eventually into the world of professional athletics.
Today, as the first IAAF World Junior Championships to be held in the U.S. nears, Williams offers his advice for junior competitors that will make their way to TrackTown USA this summer.
The six-day meet will be held July 22-27 at historic Hayward Field.
Williams, who prepped at Broughton High School in Raleigh, N.C., had never competed outside of the U.S. prior to his World Junior debut. The three-time North Carolina state high jump champion secured a place on the world team by placing second at the 2002 USA Junior Nationals in Palo Alto, Calif., with a jump of 7 feet, 1 ½ inch (2.17 meters). He was 18 years old.
“World Juniors was my first time competing internationally,” Williams said. “And now I’ve competed everywhere.”
As a part of Team USA, he then had the opportunity to travel to Nassau, Bahamas, to train for the upcoming World Junior competition and compete in the Texaco Top Athletes Pre-World Meet, where he jumped 6-11 ¾ (2.13m) for a second-place finish.
“I thought it was so cool being able to wear USA on my chest and compete for the USA. It was my first step as a kid for my goal of competing at the Olympics,” Williams said.
The 2002 U.S. junior team was stacked with several aspiring athletes who, like Williams, have since gone on to compete as elite track and field athletes, including Allyson Felix, Lauryn Williams and Bershawn Jackson.
“Right when we made the team, we had a meeting about how a lot of the kids were making good strides into making the Olympic team one day,” Williams said. “And that we should remember everyone on the team because there would be Olympic gold medalists in the room and a lot of stars in the making. Looking back you can see that there are a number of gold medal Olympic winners that were on the team with me and stars that are still in the sport right now, so it was a really special experience.”
After 10 days of training in the Bahamas, the U.S. junior team traveled to Kingston, Jamaica for the competition.
“The atmosphere was something like I had never competed at before,” Williams said. “A full stadium in Jamaica was just so exciting. There’s a great atmosphere around a junior team. Everyone is around the same age and they’re all excited about the sport.”
The qualifying rounds for men’s high jump took place on the second day of competition.
“Trying to get a time and place to take pre-competition jumps was totally different than the regular high school competition meets that I was used to,” Williams said. “There were a lot of other athletes who couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak any other languages.”
In the qualifying rounds, Williams jumped a personal best of 7-1 ¾ (2.18m) to earn a spot in the finals the next day, where he felt prepared to showcase his best performance.
“At the time, I had jumped a lot of heights very consistently around 7-2, so I had the mindset of finishing the season strong because that was the last meet of the season for me,” Williams said.
His hard work paid off as he jumped another personal best of 7-3 (2.21m) in the finals for a fourth-place finish at the IAAF 2002 World Junior Championships.
“I competed really well for a young kid,” Williams said. “I just tried to make the opportunity that I had the best that I could possibly make it. It set the stage to see how things were done at an international level. It was so exciting just being there overall, giving me a taste of what it would take at the next level and really motivated me all the way through college.”
Today, as he looks back, Williams remembers the World Junior Championships as one of the most fun experiences he has ever had at a track meet.
“I know I’ll remember it for the rest of my life,” said Williams, 30, who is in his fifth season with Oregon Track Club Elite.
“It’s just a special time to really enjoy and it’s a great motivational moment for you in the rest of your life.”
In terms of advice for future World Junior competitors, Williams expressed the importance of taking time to stop and really enjoy the experience.
“Enjoy wearing your country’s colors and name on your chest and have fun with it,” he said. “Get to know a lot of the other kids because some of them could be big stars in the future.”