Knocked down, but not out: Recovering from a concussion, MAU's Williams back to defend her 100-meter crown
BENNINGTON -- Know that when you talk to Mount Anthony Union High School senior Leniesha Williams, you are going to see her smile.
Williams has that happy-go-lucky aura about her. Always loose and ready to crack a joke -- good luck trying to get a serious conversation out of her and close friend Raheemah Madany -- she is constantly talking when practicing with her track and field team.
But at practice on Wednesday ahead of this year's Division I state championship, it's a different feeling that surrounds Williams. The smile is still there, but it comes with reservations. Her story this time is filled with more frustration than happiness.
The reigning 100-meter champion in Division I, Williams is no stranger to success on the track. She also won the 55-meter sprint in this year's indoor track season, her 4x200 relay team this winter broke the Vermont record, she won the 4x100 relay as a sophomore and has placed in the state finals of every 100-meter dash she has competed in.
And to start this year, Williams kept the momentum going. First in the 100 in MAU's opening home meet, followed by a second-place finish at the Hudson Falls Invitational. She followed that up by anchoring the 4x100 team, along with Madany, Chelsea Corrow and Taylor Gruber, that set a new meet record at the Brattleboro Relays.
But on her way home from Brattleboro, an event that was over quicker than her 12.69-second 100 time from the 2013 Division I meet nearly kept her out of this year's race.
Nodding off in the backseat of a car after getting off the bus at MAU, Williams was free to dream about breaking records and winning championships. Then, suddenly, another car t-boned the one she was in. In the violence of the collision, Williams was rocked toward the center of the car, then head-first into the window she was resting on.
Diagnosed with a concussion, Williams spent the next week out of school entirely. The following week, she could only manage going for half the day. Her focus went from sprinting in straight lines to just making sure she could see what was in front of her.
"It was frustrating. I just couldn't expect this," Williams said. "This was my senior year and I wanted it to be my best year of all. It was just frustrating for me."
When Williams finally started recovering, she got back on track to make a return. Working with the school's trainer, Jeff Wood, and her two coaches, Kathleen Newton and Bob Kurtzner, Williams started coming along. Last weekend, Williams finally returned to competition.
Running in the Essex Invitational, Williams took second in the 100, anchored her 4x100 team to a win, and placed fifth in the 200.
It was a start, but Williams noted the rust she still had to work out.
"The first [race], the prelims, I felt like I did really great," Williams said. "The finals came and, I don't know what happened. I just got tired, I did. It's a good thing by coach didn't put me in the long jump, I don't know how I would have done that."
Kurtzner, whose focus as a coach is on the sprinters, said that a lot of last weekend came down to confidence.
"She wants to get back, she wants to do the right thing, but she's nervous I think, and that's getting in her way," Kurtzner said. "It's a huge deal to try and build up her confidence.
"She just needs the confidence now. She wants to do it, but she is kind of holding back."
Yet as the championships rapidly approach, Williams and her team will make the trek to Burlington on Saturday, Williams finds herself in a battle with the pressure she puts on herself.
"I would say yes [I do put pressure on myself] because I do want first place [in the 100]," Williams said. "I shouldn't put any pressure on myself, but I can't really help it."
The seeding chart suggests Williams is still the top sprinter in the state, her 12.74 seed time sits first amongst D-I runners, but South Burlington junior Kayla Gilding has the same seed time, and CVU senior Haliana Burhans is just 0.6 seconds behind. In the 200, Williams sits third and in the long jump, she is fifth. Her 4x100 team is seeded first.
Yet somehow, the time off which kept Williams from competing might give her the advantage come Saturday. Williams said that she felt good, and that taking the time off was "the best thing I did."
The time away also gave her a newfound sense of urgency.
"When I came back, I had this adrenaline when I started running," Williams said. "I didn't want to stop. You never know you miss something until it happens and it's taken away from you. I love track, I really do. It was a tough time."
She also has goals that -- injury or not -- she wants to go for.
"I'm going for the state record in the 100. Or at least beat my school record," Williams said. "I also want to break the 200 record."
"I think she wants to go out with a bang," Kurtzner said. "She's talking about the 200 record ... She has a great field to run against to pull that down and hold the sole 200 record."
She is also eyeing the state record in the 4x100, knowing that her anchor leg could be the difference as the group look to shave over a second off their seed time (50.47) to get to the record of 49.30. Newton said on Wednesday that "you can't fool time," and Williams will be no exception to that. But asked for her take on where she is in the preparation process, Williams couldn't help but start smiling.
"I think I'm ready, I think I got it."
Geoff Smith is the assistant sports editor at the Bennington Banner. He can be reached at 802-447-7567 ext. 120, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @GSmith_Banner.
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