“It all kick-started when I won the England Under-17 Championships. That was the first time people noticed me, being from a rural, small town club.”
Lauren Williams may joke about being from a little-known part of Wales, but the 400m hurdler has made big progress in the last few seasons. The 20-year-old Welsh junior record holder ended last summer with personal bests of 55.01 and 58.09 seconds in the 400m flat and hurdles, having begun 2017 with fastest times of 57.24 and 62.75.
That race she describes came in Bedford in 2015, but what may surprise you is that the Swansea Harrier had previously been playing team sports and doing cross country. “I was a sporty kid, I had a go at everything including regional hockey and county football. I was told I didn’t quite have the skills. I used to run around a lot!”
After a couple of cross country wins, Lauren came into the path of a man stood at the finish line with flyers for local athletics club Maldwyn Harriers. There happened to be a hurdles taster session on the night she went.
Describing herself as “quite fearless”, she enjoyed the challenges of sprint hurdling and multi-events, though admits she “was never as quick or as powerful as other girls”. Maldwyn, in Newtown, Mid Wales also lacked huge choice in terms of nearby facilities, with other tracks long distances either side and a challenge to get to by public transport.
A move was suggested by coaches, who encouraged her to find hurdles expertise. Lauren crossed the English border and found Arnie Wray in Shropshire. “It was a good hour away twice a week and a lot of car journeys. But I think most athletes wouldn’t be where they are now without a parent driving them everywhere. It was quite a commitment with GCSEs as a 15-year-old.”
The effort would start to pay dividends. Four years ago, Williams followed up her first Welsh Schools and Welsh junior titles with national under-17 gold. “I had a noticeably good race and ran a Welsh junior record. It was a turning point where it went from being a hobby to something I could be good at. I was shocked to PB by 1.5 seconds.”
Looking for the next step, joining current coach Wynford Leyshon at Swansea was another turning point, this time with a two and a half hour journey. Leyshon represented Wales at the Commonwealth Games in 1974, reaching the semi-finals in the 400m hurdles and coming sixth in the relay, so he knows the path Lauren is striving towards.
“Our personalities work well together. Sometimes I need stern words post-race. Each season he sets me a time as a target – I always think it’s way too ambitious – but I’ve managed it so far.”
Lauren is especially grateful for this strong partnership given her background in team sports and the Bath student admits athletics can be isolating. “Especially in the uni environment, hockey and rugby have their weekly socials.
“You can feel like you miss out on those opportunities, but I’ve made a good group of friends from track. Losses can be hard because it’s all on you, but success is an amazing feeling as it repays your hard work.”
A string of big performances last summer saw Lauren take England under-20 gold and then win the Welsh 400m title. In the process, the hurdler beat regular single-lap runners Seren Bundy-Davies and Laura Turley and ran 0.85 seconds quicker than ever before.
— Lauren Williams (@laurenwills_99) June 17, 2018
The only thing that bothered her was falling short of the qualifying standard for the IAAF World Junior Championships in Finland. “I had been tempted to quit my season after not being selected for the World Juniors. I think I’d put the selection on a pedestal, it was just so fixated in my brain.”
While it was hard watching others compete in Tampere, a call-up to represent Great Britain at the Berlin Under-20 Match followed. Beating German and French competition in a time of 58.09 was understandably emotional. “After that race I fell on the floor and cried. It was a relief that I’d finally hit the time that proved I could have gone to the Worlds.
“In Berlin, there was no pressure and I could focus on the race. It was an amazing atmosphere in the stadium, even though it wasn’t the European Championships yet, the crowd was great.”
The stage is now set for her progress to continue, aided by a great setup in Bath. “I love it here, the facilities are great, we are lucky to have an indoor and outdoor track and good coaching support. Cameron Chalmers trains here, Kirsten McAslan has come through and Dave King hurdles here. You are surrounded by people who are trying to do the same thing. It gives you fuel for what you are doing.”
A “big goal” is now the European under-23 Championships in Sweden in July, for which 57.50 is the golden time. Ideally Lauren wants to get it early to avoid the stress of 2018, but she also knows that good things can come to those who wait.
“Kelly Sotherton gave me good advice when I was struggling with injury in 2016. I was having doubts about my season and she told me athletics is a sport where you need patience. Not every race is going to be good.”
“I went to Belgium last year for my last shot at the standard. It was the first time I had travelled abroad by myself. A five hour flight delay meant a 2am arrival. I was taken to the hotel and the cleaner came in hoovering at about 6am. I went back to sleep then at 9 two more cleaners came in. I gave up on sleeping after that!”
“After the awful journey disruption, my head was all over the place. I used the hotel espresso machine and got coffee all over the desk and the floor. I went to get the transfer bus which was 40 minutes late. It was the first time I’d had the race starter giving instructions in French, so I initially didn’t get on my marks and hit the last hurdle.”
Given the risk of clattering barriers and the 400m being a difficult beast, some might wonder why an athlete would love the discipline so much. “It’s a big skill to learn but the hurdles give you something to focus on. With just the 400, I feel you can get distracted by lactic or people around you. But I also want to see how far I can take the flat, especially as the relay brings the team aspect of sport that I like.”
“It is sometimes under populated, but we are seeing more transitions over to it like from Lina Nielsen and McAslan, so it is drawing in talent. I’m sure before long we’ll have up-and-coming Eilidh Doyle’s and Meghan Beesley’s.”
Lauren seems worthy of the ‘up-and-coming Doyle or Beesley’ badge herself and has plenty of inspiration behind her. “I was part of that generation that grew up watching Jess Ennis-Hill win her medals in 2012. I was 13 when watching Super Saturday.” Seven years on, she has international ambitions of her own. “The Commonwealth Games B standard for Wales could be around 57.00 so long-term that gives me something good to aim for.”
Beyond that, Alyson Layzell’s Welsh senior record of 56.43 was set in 1996, before Williams was born. In-fact, eagle-eyed track and field fans might associate the name with World and Olympic champion Lauryn Williams of the USA. But watch this space because this young Welshwoman is rising up the ranks.