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Olympics 2021: Lily Williams and her meteoric rise to peak with Olympic selection

After less than three years of racing on the track, Lily Williams sets her sights on the USA's Olympic team pursuit squad.

The postponement of the Tokyo Olympic Games is a blessing in disguise for track newcomer Lily Williams.

When her USA teammates were riding to a silver medal in the team pursuit at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, Williams only was making her first pedal strokes into cycling. It would be two years before she discovered track cycling, and would become part of the multi-rider Olympic project.

The one-year postponement allowed the 26-year-old to drastically expand on her experience on the track.

“The year delay because of COVID has been really good for me because I’ve now effectively doubled the time I’ve had to train,” Williams told VeloNews. “I’ve had no distractions and all I’ve been doing is training to make the Olympic team. It’s my exclusive goal. I feel really lucky.”

Also read: Rising star Lily Williams taking a multi-disciplined approach to racing

After initially testing herself out in cyclocross and then moving to road racing — where she now races with Rally Cycling — Williams made her first forays into track cycling during the winter of 2018-2019. Since then, she splits her time between the pavement and the boards.

However, the halt to a lot of road events in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic gave her the chance to really focus her efforts on the team pursuit.

“I’ve started working with the national team coaches exclusively. Before, I had an independent road coach. Now that I’m not racing on the road so much, I’m just doing track specific training. My volume has shot up and my training load has really increased. My track time has really increased,” Williams said.

“I’ve probably spent more time on the track than anyone else on the long team this year. So, I think that all of that has really helped me improve.”

Lily Williams only began racing on the track in 2019
Lily Williams (left) only began racing on the track in 2019 Photo: Maja Hitji / Getty Images

Williams rocketed to success in cycling, and she won her first world title in the team pursuit just a year after she first ventured onto the boards. Her appearance at the top level does not come totally out of the blue, however.

Prior to her switch to bikes, Williams was an accomplished runner at high school and in college. Her experiences in training for specific events and the physical attributes that come with it have given her something to build on.

“People say to me that I’m so lucky that I was good at cycling so quickly, but I’ve been an endurance athlete for almost my entire life,” Williams told VeloNews. “It’s not like I just picked something up and started it. But at the same time, I feel like I’m lucky to be able to transition to all these cycling disciplines and have some success. Any of my track success has to be attributed to Gary Sutton our coach.”

Running background a perfect fit on boards

The team pursuit, in particular, allowed Williams to draw on her experience as a runner, where she specialized in middle distance events. The short, yet sharp effort required for the discipline is perfect for her already well-developed skill set.

“I was a runner for almost a decade before. I ran in the university division one and my specialty was the 1,500m, so I’m used to doing a four-minute event. When I started cycling, I didn’t know anything about cycling. I just knew about road racing because I’d watched it growing up,” Williams said.

“Once I learned what track was, I was like ‘Oh there’s a four-minute event, that’s interesting.’ If you look at the physiological side of it, it’s certainly the event I’m most suited to. My five-minute power is really good. I’m not a great sprinter, but I also don’t have incredible 20-minute power, either. It sits right in my sweet spot.”

Expectations will be high for the USA women’s pursuit team after several dominating performances over since that silver medal in Rio.

Also read: Team dedicates Berlin world-title medal to Kelly Catlin

Competition for places is tough with nine riders earning an automatic nomination to the long team, but Williams’ part in the gold-winning line-up at the world championships in Berlin last year gives her confidence she will secure a spot.

For Williams, this year’s Olympic Games is more than just a sporting spectacle. It will be an outlet for a lot of people after nearly two years of tough coronavirus restrictions for so many around the world.

“It’s really important for the Olympics to happen. Obviously, I’m personally invested but I think as long as a safe production of the Olympics can happen then it should,” she said. “You open the news and there’s so much [stuff is] happening. We need something positive and that really can’t be understated.

“I think for me the Olympics is definitely a political event, but I think more than anything this year with COVID, the Olympics is a great opportunity for a demonstration of international unity.”