This article is part of a running series The Daily sports staff will be publishing on graduating seniors.
Fifth-year senior Harrison Williams became Stanford’s first male athlete to win a multi-events national title when he claimed the heptathlon title with a school-record 6,042 points in March. This outdoor season, he broke his own school record in the decathlon and ranks second among collegians after scoring 8,112 points at the Bryan Clay Invitational in April. The 2018 Pac-12 decathlon champion will be making his seventh appearance at the NCAA Championships across the indoor and outdoor seasons when he travels to Austin, Texas on Wednesday to compete for his first decathlon title. The Daily’s Alejandro Salinas sat down with Williams to talk about his time on and off the track.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): How did you get introduced to multi-events competition?
Harrison Williams (HW): I started running track freshman year of high school. In Tennessee, we actually have the state decathlon through the state championships at the regional meet. Tennessee is one of only two or three states in the country that has it. So my freshman year I started off hurdling and high jumping, and I thought I was good back then, but I was pretty bad. But my coach thought I should try the decathlon. So one day after team meeting, he just pulled me over and said, “Hey, I want you to do the decathlon at the regional meet in a couple of weeks,” and I was like, “What’s the decathlon,” because I had no idea.
So I showed up at the regional meet. To qualify for state I think I had to get top three or four. I had only ever done three of the 10 events of the decathlon before this time. I actually showed up an hour late and didn’t get any warm up for the 100 meters. I forgot to leave class early so I showed up like five minutes before the start of the 100 and realized that I needed to run. I ran a really bad 100, which I’d never run before. I would go to each event and ask the coach there, “Hey, how do you do this?” I scored maybe 4,000 points, which is now my day one score. I’ve definitely improved since then.
Somehow, my high school coach Bobby Austin saw potential in me and told me to try out for a club team over the summer. So I ran with the Memphis Mustangs over the summer and did some AAU [Amateur Athletic Union] stuff and went to the national meet for the decathlon and just built from there. Now, I’m here.
TSD: Do you remember your first day of practice at Stanford?
HW: I remember one of my first practices we did up backs. And that was kind of a scary day for jumpers because it’s a really hard practice, where we have to sprint 100 meters, do some exercises, sprint back 50, do some exercises and sprint back 50. We did it over and over and over again. I remember that day I got introduced to my training partner for that year. His name is Evan Weinstock. He was a volunteer assistant, and he actually ended up becoming a bobsled Olympian for Team USA at the 2018 Winter Olympics. So we trained together that year, and those backs kicked my butt. I’ve come a long way since then.
TSD: Do you have any superstitions or pre-meet rituals?
HW: Not really, I try and stay away from anything superstitious because then I feel like I have to do it. I don’t want to have to do a specific routine before every meet. The only thing I routinely do is have chicken pasta every time before a meet. Usually if it’s a big decathlon, I’ll start a couple days out so by the end of the decathlon, I’m ready to eat anything but chicken pasta. I know my coach gets kind of annoyed because we just have to go to Italian restaurants every time we go to meets.
TSD: What would you say is your strongest and weakest event?
HW: Probably the pole vault. That’s the event that towards the end of the heptathlon and decathlon, and that’s the one when I usually separate myself in the field. At indoor NCAAs, I was in second or third going into the pole vault and then ended up in first. In most decathlons, I’m pretty far down after day one. Then in day two, I start to build up, and the pole vault is when I really gain a lot of ground on some guys.
My worst I’d say is javelin, by far. I really just cannot figure out the javelin. My coach was just talking to different coach for another school. The other coach was telling him about this book that he gave his athletes to read to try and figure out the decathlon because he is having trouble as well. I actually just got that book, so I’m going to read that to try and figure it out. Hopefully there is something there.
TSD: With your collegiate eligibility coming to a close this spring, what does the future hold for you?
HW: I’ll stay around Stanford. I want to keep training with my coach through at least 2020, through the Olympics. As for the next steps, I’m going to take a week or two off after NCAAs and then I’ll be back to it and get ready for U.S. Championships. That’s in late July, I think, which is a lot later than usual. Hopefully, if I do well at that meet, I’ll make the world championship team and be able to compete in Doha at the World Championships in early October. After that, I’m going to take some time off and get ready for the Olympics. Obviously, I’ll have to first hit the Olympic standard and finish top three at the trials next year.
TSD: From day one to now, does it feel like it’s been a blur?
HW: Absolutely. It’s over like that. That’s my big piece of advice I give to freshman, just take a step back every once in a while and look around and appreciate where you’re at because it’ll go by quickly. It doesn’t feel like it because there are a lot of essays to write and psets that too feel like they take forever, but in the grand scheme of things, four or five years goes by really quickly, especially at a place like this.
TSD: What was it like winning the NCAA indoor heptathlon title last season?
HW: It was definitely a dream come true. I knew coming into Stanford that I wanted to be an NCAA champion. I never thought I would be a heptathlon champion before a decathlon champion because I’ve always considered myself a lot better at the decathlon than the heptathlon. But it’s definitely a huge confidence boost going into outdoors. It was an incredible experience. After the way it started out at the meet, I didn’t think I was going to win. I had a really bad 60 and then two really bad long jumps. I was able to pull one together on my last long jump attempt and then kept it rolling. I was able to finish strong. It was definitely a dream come true.
TSD: What would an NCAA title in the decathlon mean?
HW: It would definitely mean a lot. The heptathlon is nice and having a title in the heptathlon is awesome. But the decathlon is kind of the big one. It’s the real one. It’s the Olympic one. It’s a lot bigger than the heptathlon. I’m excited to take a shot at it this year, and it’ll definitely be an even bigger dream come true.
Contact Alejandro Salinas at asalinas ‘at’ stanford.edu.