Freshman phenom: UGA’s Kendell Williams’ standout year just the begining

Although Georgia’s Kendell Williams held great hopes for a special freshman year in Athens, never in her wildest dreams did she think she’d accomplish so much in just 10 months.

The 5-foot-9 multi-event specialist from Marietta’s Kell High School captured national titles in the heptathlon (outdoor) and the pentathlon (indoor), earning All-America status, and she also won the heptathlon at the Southeastern Conference Championships.

In winning three of the seven heptathlon events, Williams also set a record in the 100-meter hurdles (12.99 seconds) at last week’s NCAA Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Oregon, and established the American Junior (under 20), World Junior and collegiate records in the pentathlon with 4,635 points at the NCAA Indoor Championships in March.

She also set the American Junior record in the heptathlon with 6,018 points in April at the Bulldog Hepthalon in Athens.

And then there’s the hardware. Besides earning laurels as the Southeastern Conference’s Freshman Field Athlete of the Year, Williams – who on June 14 celebrated her 19th birthday — was named the U.S Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association National Women’s Field Athlete of the Year for the indoor and outdoor season.

She was also one of four nominees for the Honda Sports Award for women’s track and field and is a contender for the Bowerman Trophy, considered the Heisman Trophy for track and field athletes.

“A lot of it hasn’t hit me yet,” Williams, who also earned South Region Women’s Field Athlete of the Year honors, said. “It was a good year, but I don’t really look at it in terms of titles. I look at it in terms of the numbers I put up, but being an NCAA champion indoors and outdoors? That’s still crazy to me.

“It’s really cool because I wasn’t expecting to have as much success as I had in my first year. It also puts pressure on me at the same time – next year, and junior year and senior year, there’s going to be so much expectation. But it was cool to have the year I had, and I do like the trophies – so hopefully we can keep them coming.”

Georgia coach Wayne Norton, who first saw Williams compete as a high school freshman, said he was among those who weren’t surprised by Williams’ rookie-year performances and added that the best is yet to come.

“The thing about everything she’s done, I don’t think anybody from our standpoint is surprised,” Norton, who led the UGA women to a fifth-place finish and the men to a sixth-place finish at the NCAAs, said. “We knew she was capable of doing what she did this year. … The scary part is even with the year she’s had, she really hasn’t done everything she can do. At the heptathlon, she hasn’t had personal bests in all the events.”

The last two years have yielded some impressive performances from Georgia freshmen. In 2013, Shaunae Miller won the national indoor title in the 400 and finished second in the same event in the outdoor season, and Freya Jones won NCAA laurels in the javelin in the outdoor season. And this year, Leontia Kannenou won the national crown in the high jump as a redshirt freshman indoors (and a few months later won the outdoor high jump title as a sophomore).

Norton opined, however, that Williams might be the best freshman he’s ever coached.

“When she matures and understands training and learns how to adapt, then we’ll be able to see what Kendell Williams can do,” Norton said. “She’s just given us a taste right now and the taste has been spectacular.”

When asked what Williams needs to do over the summer to maintain and increase her edge, Norton said he’d like to see her have a respite from the track.

“What she needs to do this summer is rest, because this has been a big freshman year, and no matter how much experience she’s had in youth track and field or Junior Olympics, she’s never gone through a college season,” he said. “She’ll take it a little easier than normal so she’ll have time to recover and will be ready to start next year.”

Williams had originally planned to compete this summer in the heptathlon at the USA Junior Championships in Sacramento, California, and the World Junior Championships in Oregon, but now she plans to stick strictly to the hurdles.

“My mother and I were talking this on the way back from NCAAs and she was saying it might be easier on me and my body if I just did the hurdles,” Williams said. “It was something to think about. I still wanted to do the heptathlon for many reasons, and after thinking about it, Coach Norton called me and he was saying the same thing as my mom. And I decided it would be a better idea to cut off six events and focus on one. Practices would be a lot shorter and I could give my body a rest.”

Pointing to her brother Devon Williams (also a multi-event performer for UGA) and her training partner Quintunya Chapman (who finished sixth in the heptathlon at the NCAAs and second at the SECs) as key links in her support chain, Williams said she’s well aware that improving on her freshman year will be a big challenge.

“I hoping I can keep improving in my sophomore, junior and senior years. There’s still more in the tank,” she said. “(Assistant coach) Petros (Kyprianou) has a plan that will last for a long time. Getting better at the javelin and the shot put and running the 800, those things contribute to getting a higher score. I know we’re going to work hard at the javelin this summer and I think that will help my score a lot. There’s a lot we can work on.”

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