Sean Cleary was out in Eugene, Ore., for last summer’s U.S. Olympic Trials getting a little exercise on a walking trail near Hayward Field when he noticed a group of runners with perfect form jogging past him.
One of them looked very familiar. He looked again and realized that it was Kelly Williams
. Kelly had just completed her first season in the Mountaineer program for him as a redshirt freshman middle distance runner. What was Kelly Williams
doing out in Eugene for the U.S. Olympic Trials, wondered Cleary?
He saw her at the stadium later that day and discovered that she was out there babysitting for her doctor, also her club coach in high school who was there competing at the Trials.
“I sat her down in the stands and I asked her if she wanted to run cross country and she jumped at it and said yes. I asked her again, ‘Do you really, really want to run cross country?’”
Cleary said. “I don’t think she understood what I meant at that second, but out of it came a big-time dedication from her to become a distance runner. That was in the latter part of June and when she arrived on campus last fall she was ready to run.”
Boy, you can say that again.
Williams went from being a so-so middle distance runner with so-so times last year into one of the best milers in the country this winter - literally, in the snap of a finger. Cleary has had a bunch of national-class milers during his 20-plus years coaching the Mountaineers, but he’s never had one blow up quite the way Williams has.
“For someone who was that unknown to have it happen so quickly is a big first for us,” Cleary admitted.
“I’ve never run a mile before in my life and I’ve been training for it, I guess, since the winter started and I was really excited to try it out and see how I would do and how fast my time would be,” Williams said. “I was trying to run a fast time, sub-4:40 at least, so I can be at the national meet. Everything just went together.”
Williams hit her target time the first time she ever ran the race as a collegian two weeks ago in Geneva, Ohio. Cleary estimated that it was the sixth or seventh-fastest time in the country immediately afterward before the UM Husky Classic took place later that evening. Eleven competitors ended up posting faster times than Williams from that race alone.
“My feeling is they had rabbits out there and (schools) flew their runners across the country to run fast,” said Cleary. “If Kelly was out at that race her time would have been quicker, and had some of those girls been in Kelly’s race in Geneva their times would have been slower.”
In high school, Williams was predominantly running long sprints and intermediate races when her coach at West Geauga High, Mike Taurasi, suggested that she consider bumping up to the 800 where he felt she had much more potential.
“I was pretty much a sprinter until then,” she said. “My coach wanted me to try out the 800 and I was apprehensive at first and it ended up working out.”
Williams had some success in the 800, earning all-state honors as a prep senior, but she wasn’t a coveted prospect by any stretch of the imagination, visiting just Akron before choosing to follow her older sister Katelyn to WVU. Katelyn was a multi-year national qualifier in the high jump for the Mountaineers, placing 18th as a junior in 2011.
“Even though Kelly wasn’t a heralded recruit, she had done enough to warrant some attention,” said Cleary. “Once we invited her here she jumped at it. She knew this is where she wanted to run.”
“My family used to come to all of (Katelyn’s) home meets and I was familiar with the area and I really fell in love with WVU after coming and visiting so many times,” Kelly explained. “Then I started talking to Sean and I felt that this would be the right place for me.”
Once Cleary got her on campus and really paid attention to her long and graceful running stride, he realized that she might have a chance of becoming an elite miler if she was willing to put in the time and effort.
The next step was getting her on board.
“Once we saw that stride I think the first meet outdoors last year, I kind of made a deal with myself that I was going to run her in the mile and sort of see what her stride looked like and see her speed and the type of shape she would be in,” Cleary recalled. “She looked amazing at it and had great instincts.
“I then took her away from the 1,500 for the rest of the season, because she really wasn’t in a position to help us a year ago, and brought her back down to the 800 where I felt she would be a little more comfortable,” he explained.
The next time he had her run the mile it was for real two weeks ago at the SPIRE NCAA Division I Track Invitational in Geneva, Ohio. Because she was so inexperienced as a miler, Cleary convinced her to try an unorthodox strategy for her first race.
“I didn’t want her taking the lead until 250 meters to go because I wanted her in that pack; I wanted her in those ugly, ugly positions,” Cleary explained. “While it was frustrating for her I think she began seeing the bigger picture of one day, even if I want to run fast, what am I going to do when I go out and set the pace and have everyone sit on me? All of those things are in the back of her mind and she’s handled each test with perfection so far.”
Williams admits to being blissfully ignorant whenever she toes the line right now.
“I try and have absolutely no thoughts going through my head and just run the race that plays out and see what happens in the moment,” she explained. “It’s hard to have a race plan in such a tight race with girls shoving and pushing. As quick as the mile is, it’s tough to know exactly what is going to happen so I like to go into a race empty minded and then develop it as I run.”
Not only does Williams have the perfect body build for a miler, she’s also got the speed to be able to make up distance at the end of races.
“I’ve always believed a large portion of kicking is just desire and heart and she’s got the part of it also with the natural leg speed,” said Cleary.
Williams enters this weekend’s Big 12 Indoor Championships in Ames, Iowa, ranked second in the mile behind Oklahoma State’s Natalija Piliusina, who ran a 4:32.26 in that fast race out at the University of Washington two weeks ago. Piliusina is the clear favorite to win the mile this weekend.
However, Williams is not that far behind Piliusina at 4:38.47, which also puts her right with some of the best milers in school history. Keri Bland, the first athlete in school annals to earn All-America honors in three different sports in the same year, is tops on the list at 4:34.78.
Cleary’s No. 1 goal this weekend for Williams is to make sure she gets qualified for indoor nationals. Right now her time is ranked 21st-best in the country, which is dangerously close to the cutoff.
“I can’t even imagine talking about 4:38 not going, but I would say 4:36 would be a time that is quite reasonable,” said Cleary.
Williams will run the mile prelims on Friday, turn right around and run a leg of the distance medley relay later that evening, and then will look forward to focusing solely on the mile finals on Saturday.
“I don’t think I’ve doubled in a meet in so long, at least over a year since I’ve done two races in one day,” she said. “Sean has been training me to be able to run two races in one day and I’m excited for the challenge of it.”
Regardless of where she finishes this weekend in Iowa, Kelly Williams
’ performance two weeks ago in Ohio has served notice that the Mountaineers have another national-class miler for people to pay attention to.
“The way it’s turned out, I’ve been fairly excited and I’m really looking forward to this weekend and the weeks to come. It’s thrilling in a way knowing that I can lead the team into the future and be able to grow this program into what it used to be and what it can be,” Williams concluded.