By Chris Whitfield
When Natalie Williams graduated from Northwest Whitfield this past spring, she was a good high school distance runner with lots of potential.
In a very short amount of time, that potential is being realized in a big way.
Now a member of the cross country program at Brenau University in Gainesville, Williams finished ninth overall in the Southern States Athletic Conference Championships to help lead her team to the conference title and a spot in today’s National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Cross Country Championships in Lawrence, Kan.
“I didn’t expect this at all,” Williams said of her freshman year with the Golden Tigers.
Williams, a member of The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Girls Cross Country Team during her junior and senior seasons, had a personal-best 5K (3.1-mile) time of 21 minutes, 30 seconds when she left Northwest. This fall, she has consistently cut time, with her latest personal record at 19:36.
“I was definitely not expecting to be in the mid 19s at the end of the season, and especially wasn’t expecting to be on a team heading to nationals,” she said during a phone interview Friday from the site of the nationals.
Williams said the conference win was a surprise for the team, who expected they would finish third. But the scoring runners for the Golden Tigers were all in the top 11 at the conference finals in Clinton, Miss. Braselton’s Brittany Aikens led Brenau with a fourth-place finish in a time of 19:21.
Williams said the combination of a more rigorous and strict training regimen as well as the entire team pushing each other to constantly cut time have been her biggest boosts at college.
“We do lots of core work and drills. Our workouts are a little more crisp and we are going at a much faster pace than what I was used to in high school,” Williams said. “I have been eating healthier and bettering myself. That has all come together and promoted my success this year.”
This morning’s race will be perhaps Williams’ greatest test ever on the cross country trail because of the nature of the course and with temperatures expected to be below freezing.
“There are icicles hanging off of every traffic sign,” Williams said. “It is 22 degrees right now and feels like 13. It is like nothing that we have ever faced. The cold, the wind chill and the course, it seems pretty rough.”
Still, Williams said she expects a strong showing.
“We haven’t really discussed an overall goal, but every individual does expect to set a new personal best tomorrow,” she said. “Despite the cold and the really tough course, we can do it because it is nationals and it gives you a huge adrenaline rush. The level of competition is so much higher than it has been in our previous races and you have so many more runners to push you to go faster.”