Camarena-Williams has 'eye on the prize'

Camarena-Williams has 'eye on the prize'

Published Jul. 12, 2012 12:05 p.m. ET

If Jillian Camarena-Williams is ever in need of a pick-me-up, the power of positive thinking is right at her fingertips.

Specifically, the one on her right index finger.

It is painted with metallic gold nail polish, a reminder of what her aim is when she heads to London for the Olympics.

“Eye on the prize,” she said with a laugh. “Any little reminder.”

When a shot-putter steps into the 7-foot diameter throwing circle, he or she is carrying the shot — which weighs 8.8 pounds for women — along with his or her thoughts.

To Camarena-Williams, inquisitive and intelligent, that has been half the battle.

This will be the second Olympics for Camarena-Williams, who won the United States Olympic trials after finishing third at the world championships a year ago, the highest an American woman ever has placed. She was 12th in Beijing.

Her experience four years ago was mixed, the accomplishment of reaching her sport’s greatest stage tinged with disappointment. She fought off a back injury earlier in 2008, dropped 30 pounds and changed her technique, all moves that left her uncertain.

And yet they were steps that might have been necessary for someone who has, quite literally, taken an academic approach to her sport. Camarena-Williams, who graduated from Stanford with a history degree, intending to teach, examined ground-reaction forces in the shot put in a 30-page thesis for her master’s degree in exercise science at BYU.

Her conclusion: Heavier is better.

“(I was) trying to be this really quick, speed rotational thrower, and I ended up having awful distances,” Camarena-Williams said in May at an Olympic athletes’ media summit in Dallas. “My throwing went in the tank and being an Olympic year, we’re like, ‘Oh, crap. What’s going on?’ We’ve kind of played around with it, but when I throw my best, I’m actually at my heaviest.”

Would you mind telling how much you weigh, she was asked.

“I do,” she said with a laugh. “That’s a secret.”

Not secret enough to prevent USA Track & Field from listing her at 5 feet 10, 250 pounds on its website.

But her response, along with the rest of her fingernails, which were painted bright pink, opened the door into an issue that many women athletes must come to terms with if they compete in sports that reward girth: how to balance the demands of a profession that are in conflict with societal expectations for women.

“We try to make a statement that you don’t have to be a big, brawny kind of girl,” Camarena-Williams said of herself and fellow American shot putter Michelle Carter, who also works as a makeup artist. “You can be feminine and smile. People need to see that side of our event because we’re not the pole-vaulters that have the little six-pack abs and the tiny little outfits, but we’re strong, beautiful women.”

That was an identity that did not come easily, or quickly, for her. Growing up in suburban Sacramento, Calif., Camarena-Williams was introduced to gymnastics at age 3, then several years later, swimming. When she was in fifth grade, a school assignment required her to draw a picture of her dream job. She drew a picture of herself winning an Olympic gold medal in swimming.

Eventually, her interest in swimming waned, and in high school she excelled at volleyball and basketball and discovered the shot put.

Though she was an excellent student, and she liked to sew and cook, sports helped her forge an identity.

“I had my moments when I was really up and down,” she said. “But at the end of the day, I had friends that loved me for me, that really wanted me to do well. If I gained five pounds, they were OK with it. But there were people who obviously picked on me a little bit for my size, but I was an athlete so I kind of hung out with the athlete crowd. When I had 30 kills in a volleyball game, it didn’t matter what I weighed.”

As she got older, dating was difficult, she said, but eventually she met a physical therapist at BYU named Dustin Williams, and a friendship developed into a romantic relationship. In 2010, they were married.

“My husband is (150 pounds), a distance runner, kind of a tiny thing,” Camarena-Williams said with a giggle. “But he loves me for me. He just loves my personality, and we mesh well together. It’s about finding that person that appreciates you and not what you look like, per se.”

Husband and wife will be heading to London, staying in their own residences in the Olympic village. It is a working trip for both, with Dustin on the USATF training staff. Sometimes they will work together.

It will be comforting to have her husband around, Camarena-Williams said. This could be her last Olympics. A decision on returning to school awaits and so does when to have children, something she said will require her to lose weight.

But when she steps into the throwing circle alone for each of her throws, a stadium full of spectators and a world may be watching.

If that is overwhelming, she can glance down and see not just the steel orb — or her destiny — but a glittering reminder, one that might provide a comfort that is worth its weight in gold.