The senior and former Oxford High standout was on the plane at the Birmingham airport on that stormy April Wednesday, just minutes from takeoff for Iowa and the Drake Relays.
“I was so excited,” she said. “I had never qualified for it before, but my coach believed in me and he really wanted me to go my senior year.”
Then a tearful flight attendant ordered everyone off the plane. Passengers were directed down to a baggage claim area, where Williams spent the next two hours waiting out a tornado threat.
She returned to Tuscaloosa after dark, then awoke the next morning to see the true bewildering picture of devastation left by an EF4 tornado. Never mind the Drake Relays. She just drove to Oxford.
“I cried the entire way back. It was terrible,” she said. “… I wasn’t really able to run or eat or sleep or anything for about two days. I was just kind of apathetic about life.”
Williams gathered her wits in time to set two personal records in the SEC Championships, an appropriate ending to a season that saw the walk-on who attended college on an academic scholarship score her only first-place finish as a collegian.
Weeks later, she’s a former collegiate athlete, holding a math degree and working toward her teaching certificate. She works part time at Tuscaloosa’s Sylvan Learning Center.
As for running, she does it for herself now, and she‘s running strong. On May 21 at McClellan, she finished the Lion’s Club Run for Sight 5K second overall in 17 minutes and 40 seconds, just 12 seconds behind winner Ben Alexander.
Saturday, she took third overall in the Rockin’ on the River 10K in Gadsden, finishing in 40:40. She was the top female finisher.
Running for the simple joy of it is nothing new to Williams.
“Honestly, I preferred not being on an athletic scholarship,” she said. “A lot of my friends that were, they just didn’t love it. It was like a business for them, and they were always worried about getting their scholarship taken away.
“When I went to practice every day, I knew why I was there. It’s because I love to run and not because somebody’s paying for my school.”
Williams just appreciates the simple joy of running more than ever.
She was among the lucky during the April 27 tornado outbreak, which saw 53 tornadoes kill 249 people in Alabama. The massive tornado that slammed Tuscaloosa and swirled on toward Birmingham swerved around downtown and the airport.
As she waited out the storm in the bowels of the airport, she had no TV nearby. She couldn’t text or get messages on her cell.
Her first clue as to how bad it was came when a team trainer got the call that she had lost her home.
Williams was finally able to call her parents in Oxford to let them know she was OK. They were glad to get the call.
“They had been watching the newscast, and (ABC 33/40 meteorologist) James Spann had told them that the tornado was going right through the airport,” Williams said. “My mom said, ‘You’re daddy didn’t do anything because he wanted to be calm for me, but he was really upset.’ They didn’t know.”
When Williams returned to Tuscaloosa that night, she found car and living space intact. The storm had passed between her home at the edge of Alberta City and DCH Regional Medical Center, which sits about a mile away.
“A lot of my teammates lost their cars or had damage to their cars or apartments,” she said. “… Alberta City is completely wiped out.”
Though the SEC Championships were two weeks away, she spent the next week at home in Oxford, trying to make sense of it all.
“How can you care about competing in SECs when you see people whose houses are blown away and people are dead?” Williams said. “I guess that’s why I was so apathetic for so long. How can people still run and still go on with their day-to-day lives?”
She returned to Tuscaloosa and trained for a week. It was enough for her to produce personal-best times in the 10K and 5K runs at SECs.
Those races occurred at Athens, Ga., the same place where she posted her lone first-place finish as a collegian on April 9. The loyal Tider won’t go so far as to call Athens sacred ground, but winning their gave her a quite a memory.
“I used to win a lot in high school, and then you get to college and you’re not the best any more,” she said. “You’re struggling to finish in the middle of the pack, and it’s pretty annoying. The girls you’re running against are really, really good. So, I was excited that I won.”
She added with a chuckle, “I got a T-shirt!”
Out of NCAA eligibility but with school work still ahead, Williams plans to continue something like collegiate competition. She will compete for a club triathlon team at Alabama.
The team includes other former collegiate athletes.
“I want another team to be a part of,” she said. “It’s kind of where we go when we’re all washed up.”
Williams also aims for another run in the Woodstock 5K on Aug. 6 in Anniston. The race will serve as this year’s Road Runners Club of America national championship for the 5K distance, and life beyond the reach of NCAA rules means she can accept prize money.
But that‘s not why she runs.
“It‘s definitely not a money maker at all,” she said. “It’s just something I enjoy doing.
“First and foremost, I want to be sure I’m going a good job when I’m teaching and when I’m coaching, and then my running will come third to that.”
Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @Jomedstar.