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Novlene Williams-Mills: More than an Olympian

Updated on March 18, 2018
Novlene Williams-Mills has a mission now to let women know they too can be a survivor.
Novlene Williams-Mills has a mission now to let women know they too can be a survivor.

By Author - Olivier Stephenson

It’s Sunday, August 30, 2015, Beijing National Stadium – aka the Bird’s Nest. It is the final of the women’s 4x400-meter relay race at the IAAF World Championships in Athletics.

Jamaica was the favorite to win based on the runners they had on their team who made the finals of the women’s 400-meter race at the Championships. Shericka Jackson, who will run the second leg was a bronze medalist; lead off runner Christine Day, was fourth; third-leg runner Stephanie Ann McPherson finished fifth and Novene Williams-Mills, sixth.

The United States squad consisting of Sanya Richardson-Ross, Natasha Hastings, Allyson Felix and anchor runner, Francena McCorory, is Jamaica’s primary competition. Richard-Ross and Felix were two of the fastest women over the 400 in 2015.

Veteran Williams-Mills was an individual bronze medalist from the 2007 Osaka World Championships with a time of 49.66. She also won a silver medal in the 4x400 meter relay at the 2012 Olympic games and placed fifth in the open 400 meters event.

In July 2013, Williams-Mills had revealed to the press that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer prior to the 2012 London Olympics. At the time of her diagnosis, this fact was not widely known to the public. She nevertheless ran the 4x400 to help Jamaica earn a bronze medal at the games. Following the London Olympics, Williams-Mills had a mastectomy in January 2013, and later had another operation, which resulted in her missing out on most of that season. At the time she said she would run “for all the breast cancer survivors out there.”

The other countries in the lineup for the race are the Ukraine, Canada, Great Britain; Northern Ireland, Nigeria, Russia and France.

At the start of the race, Christine Day runs a strong leg and gives a clear lead at the first exchange with Richardson-Ross running fiercely in tow. On the second leg Shericka Jackson also offers a strong leg to hand over to third leg runner Stephanie Ann McPherson, ahead of Natasha Hastings.

Jackson now has at least a 10-meter lead over Allyson Felix who has gone into overdrive and closes down the gap. As she approaches the curve at the 300-meter mark, she passes Jackson giving anchor McCorory a good three-meter lead. By all appearances the U.S. team looked to have the race in the bag. Felix had clocked a blistering split of 47.72 seconds, the third fastest relay leg in history and the fastest ever seen at the IAAF World Championships.

The 33-year-old Williams–Mills grabs the baton from McPherson and takes off on a determined chase after McCorory. A powerful runner, McCorory has a good three-meter lead on Williams-Mills and even manages to open up the gap a bit more than she makes the turn for home with Williams-Mills staying steady on her tail.

On the homestretch, McCorory’s arms begin flailing wildly. The spectators in the "Bird’s Nest" stadium are now totally beside itself, the roar is almost unbearably deafening. Williams-Mills pumps her arms quicker as she begins to gain rapidly on McCorory until she finally catches and passes her at about ten meters from the finish line and adds about another two meters ahead of her at the wire. As she crosses the finish line Williams-Mills shoots up her right arm with the baton, something she now admits has never been her habit after winning a race.

The winning time: a world leading time of 3:19.13.

The U.S.A.: 3:19.44; Great Britain: 3:23.62.

Williams-Mills’ split was 49.14.

Now in retrospect and reliving that race, Williams-Mills says, “Christine Day had given us a great start, and from Christine Day to Shericka, I’m looking and, I’m like, ‘Oh, my God,’ we had this gap which was, like, ridiculous and I never remember ever having a gap like that before, and I’m like, ‘Oh, Lord, my job is gonna be easy.’

“Allyson ran a really fantastic leg but we were behind, and when that baton was handed to me from Stephanie so I said to myself, 'whatever you do Novlene, do not let Francena get too far ahead of you.'

I knew she was fresh and I was battling some thyroid problems. I’m like, ‘Lord, just help me through this race’. When we got on that homestretch, I was chasing her and then I saw her arms start to flail. I don’t know what came over me but somehow, I don’t know what happened, but I just realized I was getting closer and closer and then I just overtook her.

“I passed the finish line [and] I had the baton up in the air - and I’m thinking, ‘that’s not me, I don’t celebrate like that.”

Declaring almost apologetically, Novlene now says, “I don’t know what happened, but looking back at that race and being in the moment, I didn’t realize that Christine and Shericka were jumping and screaming. I was still in the moment that it happened - we finally beat the U.S.” And she adds: “But for me with everything that I’d been through it was the reason why I came back … I’m glad that I was a part of it.”

When Williams-Mills got into the homestretch she says she realized she was beginning to get tired. For the 400-meter race the 300 mark, the turn to home is when the lactic acid in a runner’s leg begins to take its toll. The thigh muscles feel as though they over-pumped and are about to burst and the runner tries push through the pain, and if they can do it the runner forces lifting the legs higher or the legs will start to drag and feel heavy.

“I realized I was tired,” Williams-Mills says as she was making the last curve home, “but I realized I wasn’t breaking down as I saw how she [Francena] was breaking down. So for me I was like, ‘just keep going, just keep going … don’t get too over excited … you’re close to the finish … if you pass her just go … just continue going’.

At the moment when I passed her I was like, ‘you won this race.’ I knew Great Britain wasn’t close behind us … so for me it was one of the things I could ever want. I think we had too many second [places],” She laughs. “I never even knew what the time was for my leg, we were too happy about winning!”

It was while attending Fern court High School in the parish of St. Ann, Jamaica, when Williams-Mills first began her foray into track and field. At the time her PE instructor recognized her talent as a sprinter and she was doubling up in two events, the 200- and 400-meter races.

“I was trying to be that one-two runner but my coach convinced me to try the 400,” Williams-Mills recalls. After about a year she began having more success at the distance and stuck with it. It wasn’t until she started accruing successes at that distance and began to enjoy running in that event, but confesses she did not enjoy the training aspect of it.

“When I was in college everybody was still running that 50-point [seconds], maybe occasionally that 49, but I think over the years most people … when you can step in that 49 range then you’re pretty much at the top of your game.”

Technically, she admits that it wasn’t so much that she chose the 400 but more so that it chose her. “Which I’m happy about,” she admits, noting that, “sometimes you’ve got to find what really works for you and I have to give credit to my PE teacher at the time, Wayne Reid, for introducing that 400 to me and for me sticking with it and maybe if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have the success … and really being the athlete that I am. He is the one who I have to technically give credit too.”

Like so many of Jamaica’s track athletes who have made it to the international level, the Inter-Secondary Schools Boys and Girls Championships has been the bedrock and veritable incubator for Jamaican track and field athletes for over 100 years. And like the many Jamaican athletes who have gone on to become worldwide élite stars such as Usain Bolt, Williams-Mills also had her taste of what is commonly known in Jamaican circles as “Champs”.

While her high school was never known as a major force in track and field competition, Williams-Mills managed to place third in her event while competing there. It was also her entrée into participating in a major track meet of its caliber.

“It was really a good experience for me being one of those athletes from a small school that nobody really knows and for me to go and represent it,” Williams-Mills says. “But just to see people from all these different schools representing their schools at champs … and just being in that atmosphere seeing everything was really great.”

She adds: “But it really wasn’t something that I think I would be doing now … that little girl from the country going to Fern court, that little country school, but I guess a little hard work doesn’t hurt.”

As a result of her “little hard work” Williams-Mills was able to land a track scholarship to Essex County College in Newark, New Jersey in 2001 where she would remain until transferring to the University of Florida in Gainesville on a full scholarship at the end of 2002 where she later graduated in 2004.

Her coach at Essex was Michael Forte and at the University of Florida she was a member of the Florida Gators track and field team under the guidance of the late Tom Jones.

She was majoring in a recreation course and specialized in hospitality management and also a two-year Associates degree in business administration.

While at the University of Florida she mainly was concentrating on scholastic experience rather than track and field. However, it wasn’t until after participating in a number of track meets when her times began to show improvement and her potential.

As a result, she says it was Jones who was the person who helped her to believe in herself, her talent as well as her confidence.

Regarding her coach, she says: “I don’t know if it wasn’t for him if I had continued running track because I was more thinking about school and I never looked at [track and field] as being my future, so that part of it I have to really give him credit for pushing me a little bit and let me believe that you can do it.”

She first made the Jamaica track and field team that went to the 2003 World Championships in Paris, Saint-Denis, France. But while she had qualified but running third at the trials in Jamaica, she was not given the chance to run on the 4x400 meter relay team at the meet.

“The coach decided not to use me and used other athletes for the 4x4 and 400 and I made a promise there and then and I told a couple the coaches, ‘you’re not putting me on the team at all to run and I think that was a little disrespectful.’ I got third at the trials but most of the other ladies that ran they were no longer college students anymore, this was their job. I promised them that ‘this will never happen again.’ So I don’t know if that was one of my motivations too. Since 2004 I’ve been on Olympic teams to 2017. I’ve been pretty much on all the Jamaica teams.”

The world of track and field has changed exponentially from the days when the word “amateur” participating for the sheer enjoyment of the sport and representing one’s country at the biggest track meet in the world – the Olympic Games. But amateurism in the strictest meaning of the word began to change and track and field athletes since around the early 1980's began to actually realize being able to make a living from the sport.

No longer is money being handed under the table for an athlete to travel and compete and buy equipment since the introduction of grand prix meets. Today, many young talented athletes aspire not just get a track scholarship but to become a professional athlete in the sport.

Williams-Mills says she feels “really good” having competed for as long as she has, and for her many accomplishments in the sport of track and field. And the way she looks at it, she declares also that many people neither get such an opportunity or the chance to be on such a stage.

She also emphasizes this fact by adding that there are many individuals who wanted to pursue track and field professionally and to be able to participate in such events as the Diamond League, the Golden League, the World Championships, the Olympics, never got the chance and as such, she feels “really blessed” as a result.

“I feel really honored that I can represent my country, I can represent myself and I can show people that this is Novlene,” Williams-Mills allows. And what makes such an achievement even more compelling she notes is that coming from a small country school in Jamaica and being in the limelight is for her an extraordinary achievement. “I feel really blessed because for my family they can watch me on TV and they can tell their friends and a lot of people – sometimes a lot of people don’t believe them,” she laughs. But I feel proud that I can represent myself, I feel proud that I represent my family and I feel proud that I can represent my country.”

Many athletes speak of getting into a “zone” as they prepare for a race as a way getting focused. The famous Jamaican 200 meter Olympic Donald quarry described his experience that while there is a rush of adrenalin, he’s not nervous but instead relaxed, confident and determined. The gun goes off and everything that he’s practiced takes over. While running he does not hear the roar of the crowds but only his footsteps and in 20 seconds or fewer it’s all over.

For Williams-Mills it’s about trying to block out everything. According to her one’s mind can become “lost in that crowd” by distracted by such things as simple as people yelling her name which she says can cause her to lose her ability to focus properly. “I try to focus on the people that are in the race, I try to focus on my lane,” she says. She also runs the race in her mind before the start of race, a game plan developed between herself and her coach. She explains it this way: “Novlene, this is what position your are in backstretch, this is where you’ve got to make your move, I have to calculate every step that I make and for me I have to be in that moment, I have to be in that zone where nothing else matters to me … for the last 120 I have to make sure that I’m in a position to be ready to move, ready to run and ready to win that race.”

But long before she became a professional she would constantly and consistently be fighting nerves to the extent that “if [someone touched] me I would fall over …”

But she long since learned how to cope with nervousness and anxiety before a race.

“One thing I’ve realized,” she says now about of her competitors, “they’re athletes just like me.” And even though she may still feel a twinge of nerves before a race,

“it’s not like ‘Oh, God, I don’t want to run, but it’s more like did I train hard enough? Technical things …”

When asked about the women’s 400-meter world record, Williams-Mills doesn’t see it ever being broken any time soon. She allowed that she joked about the record with Rio Olympics women’s 400-meter gold medalist Shaunae Miller-Uibo. “I’m like, ‘Shaunae, if you break the world record, let me know before because I’m not coming to your funeral.’”

The women’s 400-meter world records stands at 47.60 seconds set by Marita Koch of then East Germany at the World Cup meet in Canberra, Australia in 1985.

“I think that’s one record that’s gonna be standing maybe forever,” Williams-Mills proffers. “I don’t really see anybody stepping into the 47 range.”

Similarly, she views the two other shorter sprints in women’s 100 and 200-meter races with worlds records set by the late Florence “FloJo” Griffiths-Joyner of 10.49 and 21.34 seconds, respectively. “I know if I’ll ever see anybody going to 10.4 or 21.34,” Williams-Mills says looking at those two worlds records. “I mean, you have great athletes, you have people that are running 21.6, but 21.3 is a lot of running.”

And speaking of sprint world records, Williams-Mills and men’s world 100- and 200-meter record holder Usain Bolt both captained the Jamaican track team to the 2017 IAAF World Championships in Athletics in London. The Jamaican squad, however, didn’t fair as well as it did in past major competitions. In fact, the seemingly superhuman man affectionately called by fans “Lightning” Bolt didn’t fair as normally expected and would up third in the 100 meters to longtime rival Justin Gatling whom he beat in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

“Usain Bolt is a one-of-a-kind, unique individual,” Williams-Mills says. “Usain wins races. Usain breaks records. Usain entertains on the track. He will be greatly missed not seeing him at World Championships or the Olympics lining up for 100. I think a lot of people will miss that.”

She also notes that Bolt attracted a lot of people track meets wherever he competed and that now that he has retired questions whether track meets around the world will still draw the crowds that attended meets when Bolt was in attendance.

“Usain has done so much for the sport and at the end of the day people came to see Usain,” she says. However, she continues that nothing should be taken away from those competitors who ran against Bolt, because “I think they gave Usain that chance to go out and put those records up … they pushed him to be the best that we have seen, because I don’t know any other athletes who can go to a championships and win three gold medals and keep doing it championship after championship … for him I think we owe him gratitude for bringing life back into track and field.”

But in addition to Bolt’s athletic prowess she says that the sprinters are generally easygoing and fun loving. What’s it like to being around Bolt?

“Oh, he’s crazy,” Williams-Mills declares chuckling. “Not crazy in a bad way, but Usain is a big kid at heart, he likes to play around, he likes to joke [around] and all that stuff.”

The London World Championships was Bolts last time ever to compete. But, Williams-Mills declares: “He was happy to be there, I think he had so much fun being around … there was never a dull moment with Usain … Even when he lost a lot of people thought that he would be mad … and walk off the track when he got the bronze medal but the true champion that he is always, he was actually gracious in defeat … Usain knows what it is [like] to lose in his earlier days so it wasn’t like the lost because he didn’t work hard or he stopped working hard, he’d been hurt for a while so to be back out there it was, like, ‘I’m giving the fans one more time.’ He could have walked away after the race but he didn’t … and you’ve got to give him credit for it.”

As for Justin Gatling, contrary to being seen as not only Bolts nemesis and for being busted for doping a number of times, she says he’s a “really nice person to sit and talk to and we’re really good friends.” In fact, before it became widely known about her bout with cancer, it was Gatling who was one of her big supporters and who gave moral support in different ways. They first became acquainted with each other when both trained at the same track club in Clermont, Florida.

“I tell people, ‘listen, he has been there for me when I was going through my cancer in 2012,” Williams-Mills says, “he was one of the persons that was there taking me to my doctor’s appointments whatever days my husband wasn’t there … because he had to go to work. I trained with him for a while when both of us used to train with Brooks Johnson … we trained together for a while … and we used to see each other every day so, we used to train on the same track … we’d go to track meets all the time seeing each other… and we developed a really good relationship, a really good friendship.”

Once her track and field career winds down completely, Williams-Mills envisions herself becoming more involved with the cancer community organizations and seeing how best she can fit in terms of playing a representational role in the battle against the disease; spending more time with her family and eventually to start raising a family of her own.

However, she says, by getting involved as a figure in the fight against the cancer, she wants “to look and see what best suits me and how best I can give in the part I can play.” But she also notes that by becoming involved as public figure she wants to make sure that “whatever organization that I’m a part of I can be myself and helping someone out with cancer in whatever way I can contribute.”

Williams-Mills appeared in the June 29, 2017 issue of the ESPN Body Issue publication. She was approached by the publication via an email asking if she would consider being a part of such a shoot. “I told them yes,” she says, and, “I did.” The main reason for doing the shoots was, she says, “telling ladies that have gone through cancer … feel that they’re not still beautiful, for me, you’re still beautiful.”

Williams-Mills who won a silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics told ESPN: “I had to face something that a lot of people sometimes don’t survive. You know, to come out on the other side and to come and to do what I love to do, it feels pretty good.”

Novlene's Photo Gallery

What’s one of the most memorable moments in your career and why?

“Anchoring Jamaica’s 400m relay in 2015 at the World Championships to the gold medal because Jamaica had not won that event in 14 years!

For me to be part of that team was great, especially after being diagnosed with breast cancer and then having a thyroid infection in 2015. It was a great feeling to celebrate with my teammates.”

-- Novlene Williams-Mills

Novlene with husband, Jameel Mills.
Novlene with husband, Jameel Mills.
It was a comfort and saving grace to have her husband, Jameel Mills,  with her here in Florida after being diagnosed with cancer.
It was a comfort and saving grace to have her husband, Jameel Mills, with her here in Florida after being diagnosed with cancer.

I had to face something that a lot of people sometimes don’t survive. You know, to come out on the other side and to come and to do what I love to do, it feels pretty good.”

— Novlene Williams-Mills

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