US student, model, financial advisor, steeplechaser. . . Jade Williams has packed a lot in to 25 years. Owen Morgan has been to meet the resilient Welsh athlete who has overcome one nasty hurdle and is already looking beyond the Commonwealth Games.
Four months after dramatically collapsing at the side of the track at the British Championships with a suspected heart condition, athlete Jade Williams is back in training and setting new goals for the future.
Having undergone “just about every test under the sun” since the frightening incident at Birmingham’s Alexander Stadium in July, Williams has at last been given a clean bill of health after an agonising wait to find out whether she could carry on competing.
Despite her delight at being able to resume her athletics career, the episode has robbed the fiercely patriotic Williams the chance to fulfil her dream of representing Wales in the 3000 metre steeplechase at next year’s Commonwealth Games in Australia.
However, she has put the disappointment of missing out on the Commonwealths behind her and is focussing on a new challenge of representing Great Britain at the European Athletics Championships in Berlin next August.
Speaking at her home in Cardiff, Williams said: “The British Champs were definitely a shock and I’ve been undergoing lots of heart tests over the past couple of months.
“They thought I might have had a serious heart problem. They only diagnosed it five weeks ago and I’m thankful that it’s nothing major.
“I’ve got an irregular heart beat but that won’t affect my training. They were quite worried it was something major. But luckily, touch wood, all the tests came back fine. I’ve seen some of the best doctors in the world, so I am very lucky.
“Now I can move forward, which is really positive, and not worry about what happened.”
Such was Williams’ desire to pull on the red vest on the Gold Coast next April, she switched events from the 1500 and 800 meters, where she is a former Welsh Champion, to focus on the 3000m steeplechase – an event she felt offered more chance of achieving her goal, despite having never attempted the discipline until May of this year.
In that first steeplechase at the Loughborough International, the 25-year-old remarkably broke the Welsh record having never previously run over barriers.
Buoyed by her the success of her debut, Williams went into the British Athletics Championships confident she could achieve the Commonwealth Games qualifying time there, or in the subsequent races she had lined up during the summer.
However, disaster struck mid-race.
Williams recalls: “I was blacking out during the first couple of laps. I was going to pull out two laps before I did because I kept going in and out of consciousness.
“But I’m always really determined and I’ve never not completed a race before, even if I’ve been feeling really bad. Obviously, with the barriers involved it’s a completely different ball game and it would have been stupid for me to carry on.
“As I was just pulling off the track I ended up losing consciousness anyway. It was nothing to do with dehydration or anything like that. I’ve had every single test under the sun done and nothing’s wrong.
“What they said was that I might have had a bit too much caffeine before the race, so that could have contributed to my heart rate getting faster. It could have been a number of things really. But the main thing is that everything in terms of a medical point of view is all fine and that’s what I needed to know, so that I could start training again.
“It’s been really frustrating but at the same time I feel really positive about it now because I know how much room there is for me to improve. To go out and break a Welsh record was so unexpected after not having been over any barriers in my life, not even in training.”
Williams made the brave decision to switch to a completely unknown and untried event from 800m and 1500m after undergoing performance testing which showed she had a natural aptitude for the steeplechase – an event which has relatively less demanding qualifying standards for major championships.
Williams explained: “I’m very passionate about being Welsh, I’ve lived away out of Wales for a while, but that’s all I’ve wanted to do was run in the Commonwealth Games for Wales.
“Since I was a child I’ve always been so passionate about running for my country. I love running so much I didn’t really mind which event it was in, but I wanted to run and to represent my country.
“I had the performance tests done last winter at Sport Wales because that’s when I was starting to take running really seriously, before that I was only training three to four times per week, nowhere near the level of most athletes who are competing at the level I do.
“They found that my natural endurance is very good actually, and a really high standard for the lack of mileage I’ve done in the past. Also I’ve got power which I need to start utilising in this new event. I’m 6ft and I’ve got long legs, so they said that I would be perfect for the steeplechase and that’s how it all started.”
“The qualifying standards are really tough for the Commonwealth Games at 800 and 1500 because of all the Kenyans, they’re pushing down the qualifying times.
“You’ve got to be realistic, especially when you’re starting out on your career. A lot of athletes can say ‘I’m going to do this and do that’, but you’ve got a qualifying standard which is almost the same as the Olympics for the 800 and the 1500, whereas the steeplechase is a difficult event, but the qualifying standards don’t seem to be as challenging.
“That’s why I went down that route, thinking that would be my best way of representing the country that I love.”
However, instead of dwelling on what might have been having run out of time to qualify for the Commonwealths while she was sidelined, Williams is now looking ahead to fulfilling her untapped potential in the steeplechase.
She said: “Even though the Commonwealths didn’t materialise I’ve learnt so much this year that I’m so excited and really positive about next year and seeing what I can do in an event that is completely new to me.”
After leaving the Ivy League Cornell University in New York, where she studied economics and Spanish, the 25-year-old concentrated on setting up her own financial advice company, while her athletics played second fiddle.
Now she has been given a clean bill of health she is determined to re-focus on her athletics potential.
She said: “I feel great now. I’m excited for this winter. I’ve been running since I was aged nine and I’ve always run at quite a good level, but actually you wouldn’t believe the amount of miles I do compared to other athletes, I barely do anything.
“So I don’t have the running experience in terms of full time training. I would say I’ve only been full time training for about a year to 18 months because I run my own company.
“I’m one of the youngest financial advisors in Wales and the South West of England, so that’s always been a huge part of my life as well as athletics. So now it’s time to obviously still work, but I’m in a nice position where I can put more focus on training and making sure I’m getting enough rest and recovery.
“I think that’s what my downfall was last season – trying to do too much work with the mix of trying to train as a full-time athlete. So it’s definitely a big learning curve for me this year.”
Williams has also set herself a new qualification goal. “If I can’t do the Commonwealth Games, my next aim would be the European Championships. I really do feel I can do it if I can have a good winter, have a lot of practice over the barriers and just get robust by getting into the gym.
“I’ve never really done much gym work and obviously you need to combine power with endurance to get you over the barriers. So these are aspects of the training that I don’t have any experience in.
“My coaches James Thie and Chris Jones have been incredible helping me through this tough twelve months and I couldn’t have done it without them. Also with the help of Sport Wales, Welsh Athletics, my doctor Mark Ridgewell, my physio and massage therapist, it’s just really a fantastic environment to be in.
“With this support at the moment, I don’t see why I can’t be part of that British team. The depth in steeplechasing in Great Britain is not as good as other countries so I’m looking forward to seeing what I can do in the event.
“Even though I’m only starting out, if you look at the progression of the top two steeplechasers in Britain at the moment and their statistics, I should be well up there with them.
“I definitely feel confident that when I do get strong and robust and have a really consistent season I can perform well on the world stage. So it’s just the development at the moment, making sure that I can get this next year nailed.
“I don’t want to be jumping into any racing too soon, so my first race will be in March of next year. I may do one or two indoor races, but for my first big race I really want to go to America and run the Stanford Invitational which is one of the biggest in the world at that time of the year for the steeplechase.”
Williams acknowledges the key to success next season will be finding a balance between her athletics and off-track career.
One aspect of her life which is likely to be put on the back burner is her modelling commitments.
She says: “I’ve been modelling since I was 16. I’ve modelled in London and different parts of Europe as well. When I first started it was just a way of getting some extra money really. I do enjoy it, I guess it’s something different and it makes me feel a bit more lady-like, sometimes when you’re running through mud in fell running and jumping into loads of different things it’s definitely a nice thing to do.
“You see some fantastic places and locations in the world, but I’m quite happy with my training and my business at the moment. I’ve done a few shoots with Calvin Klein and I’ve done some for European magazines, but that was going back about two or three years ago now.
“I don’t have as much time to go away and now that I’m starting to focus on my athletics it’s definitely going to be more difficult to go and do shoots.”
Wherever her athletics career takes Williams, one thing that won’t change is her love of Wales and particularly the Amman Valley where she was brought up.
Apart from when she is representing Wales, Williams always wears the red and blue vest of her first club, the relatively little known Ammanford-based Amman Valley Harries running club.
Williams says: “It goes back to being so patriotic, I feel that Amman Valley were there at the start and that’s how I got into the love of running with people like Robert Fowler. He was the one who spotted me.
“I used to swim but then I won the Welsh Primary Schools cross country championship. Even though I didn’t run at the time, it was just from my swimming fitness. That was when my love of running really started.
“I’ve been asked to run for Cardiff and Swansea, but it wouldn’t feel like me if I ran for them. To me, the Amman Valley is where I’m from, that’s where I’m proud of being from, and they are the people who supported me getting into the sport I love.
“That means more than going and running events for a club that might be better ranking wise. That’s just how my mind has always worked. I’m very loyal to Amman Valley and I’ll always be with Amman Valley. I’ll always wear the vest, whether I’m in a top international event in Belgium, or anywhere else, I’ll still be wearing their vest.”
Having produced rugby legends such as Gareth Edwards and Shane Williams in the past, who’s to say the Amman Valley’s next sporting success story won’t be a steeplechaser who may be new to the event but is no stranger to overcoming challenging barriers.