Every time, of the thousands of times Taleah Williams ’19 has competed, she gets nervous.
The 23-year-old Doane University grad has lined up for the long jump since she was a little kid in the Norfolk Optimist Club kiddie track program, to high school, to Doane and to the World Paralympic Games and more.
"I train almost every day," said Williams, who now lives in Omaha and is training for the Paralympic Games in Tokyo, which were originally scheduled to take place this summer, but will not anymore because of COVID-19. The International Olympic Committee announced on March 24 that the 2020 Olympics would be postponed to 2021. This marks the first time ever the Olympics have been postponed because of something other than war.
While it is a frustrating reality for Williams and the other hundreds of Olympic and Paralympic athletes that the world’s biggest stage for athletics will be on hold for another year, she knows it is the right decision to postpone.
The Olympics and Paralympic Games on hold just means more time for Williams to train and get better, she believes.
"I workout, study tapes and train, and yet, my first jump is always the nervous one," she said. "I don't know why, but it gets a lot easier after that first jump."
Williams made the USA Paralympic team for the second time. She competed in the Olympics in Rio De Janeiro in 2016 and finished sixth. She won the World Championships in London in 2017.
She finished sixth in the 400. And it was at the start line of the 400 when she learned she won the gold in the long jump.
"I couldn't even think through the 400 and I can only remember that I didn't want to cry when they played the Star-Spangled Banner at the medal ceremony," Williams said.
Born without a left hand, she grew up self conscious about her difference. Even through high school basketball and other sports, she was still self conscious of her difference from most of the competitors.
"When I got to Doane, that all went away," Williams said. "It was like I realized nobody cared that I was different than them. So, I just fell into having a good time and felt a lot better mentally -- about jumping, everything."
Along with the nationally prominent Doane women's track team, Williams qualified for the NAIA nationals twice and finished 21st. She popped out a jump of 5.28 meters (17-feet, 3-inches-plus) last spring to finish 21st in the country in non-specialized competition.
A jump like that in the Paralympics would help her close in on a gold medal and close in on her dream of the world record for Paralympics at 6.01 meters (19-8-plus).
"Running is natural, but the jumps require something special -- that explosion off the board and into the sand -- and Taleah has that," said Steve Gordon, who has coached Williams for the Paralympics competitions the last four years. "She has the brainpower that she's picked up from some pretty fantastic coaches along the way, especially the coaches in high school and at Doane."
The second youngest in a family of five sisters (Amaya, LaShicka, LaShunda, LaTasha, Shernicka) and two brothers (Calvin and Derrick), Williams was awarded the Ron Gustafson Inspiration Award by the Nebraska High School Hall of Fame. She qualified for the state high school meet, then went to the University of Nebraska-Omaha for college. Two years later, she transferred to Doane.
"Doane became family. I could talk to teachers, work with coaches, hang out with teammates and feel like I was a part of something bigger than I had ever been a part of before."- Taleah Williams
Williams is following in the footsteps of 2005 Doane University graduate Natalie Schneider.
Schneider, a 36-year-old Crete native, earned a spot on the USA wheelchair basketball team for the fourth time this spring. She's claimed a spot on the USA team in 2008 and has brought home a pair of gold medals from Paralympics in Rio and Beijing.
She was a basketball player when she was stricken with osteosarcoma that ended her basketball playing career. She made the switch to seated volleyball and eventually qualified for the USA basketball team.
A mother of three children, she's ready to return to world-level competition in Tokyo.
Williams would love to join Schneider in Japan next summer in the postponed Olympics.
"Getting to Tokyo would be so great," said Williams, who has to go through US qualifying this first. "I know I'm a long way from being ready to compete against the world, but we're working hard."
Williams graduated from Doane with a degree in Health and Human Performance and Exercise Science.
"That knowledge helps me understand what I can do and what I need to do to be at the top of competitive sports," Williams said.
Doane head track and field coach, Ed Fye, said Williams has a special talent and ability to compete with the best.
"She's modest, humble and understands you don't do anything just by working alone," he said in a previous interview. "She is very coachable and has a work ethic that makes it all work for her," said Doane assistant track coach Dave Ziola, who worked extensively with Williams on the jumps.
"I got so much help and Steve (Gordon) keeps that up when we go over to Omaha Westside (where Gordon works) or to workout with weights," Williams said. "I miss the team aspect I had at Doane. But Steve does a great job and I get to watch my little sister (Amaya) compete in high school, so I keep the family feeling that was so special in Crete."
Gordon believes Williams could be her best this year.
"In college, you have eight weeks of competition indoors and 12 outdoors, then the national meets, and then, trying for the Paralympics teams," Gordon said.
"This year, there's a time we can get the proper rest and rebuilding and training on the specific aspects of the long jump.
"Taleah is missing her left hand, so we work on her balance and the fact one side of her body is more muscular and bigger and she has to regain her balance to jump her best."
For Williams, the chance to compete is another step in her future.
"I have thought about how cool it would be to compete in the Olympics in 2028 in Los Angeles," she said. "I don't know why I'd give up doing what I love."