Tiffany McWilliams said she began running track when she was in seventh grade, because, "I went out with my friends to stay in shape for basketball because we wanted to win the state championship."
She and her friends eventually won that Alabama state championship when they were seniors at Red Bay High School. But that was the end of Tiffany McWilliams as a basketball player, even though she was named the Outstanding Player of the state tournament as a senior.
Her running to stay in shape earned her attention from coaches at Mississippi State, where she still trains and attends classes even though she has turned professional. Her first race of the 2005 outdoor season will be when she defends her Olympic Development Mile championship at this year’s Penn Relays.
Last year, McWilliams’ winning mile time of 4:31.31 was the second fastest winning time for the mile in the 29-year history of the event, behind only Mary Slaney’s 4:26.10 in 1997. (The event has been run at one mile 18 times, at 1500 meters 11 times.)
McWilliams, NCAA 1500-meter champion last June, is still new to the world of track and field.
"I didn’t know there was such a thing in high school," she said. "I didn’t know there was indoor track.
"I didn’t have the fastest times in high school. I didn’t train. But the coaches here (Mississippi State) saw me and knew I had talent. When I came here I enjoyed the environment, it was close to home, and it was a Division I program."
But her raw talent showed, because she set Alabama state track records for 800, 1600 and 3200 meters in high school, and was a two-time state cross country champion.
McWilliams ran through last June’s NCAA meet with a stress fracture in her left foot, and when it continued to worsen she was unable to compete in the Olympic Trials. And while she still trains at Mississippi State with her college coaches, she now competes on her own, with no teammates.
"You’re in a whole, new level," she said. "You’re a world-class athlete, but you’re still where you were because a lot of my time I’m still a full-time student."
McWilliams said she’ll graduate in December, with a degree in educational psychology.
Like so many collegians, running at Franklin Field during the last weekend in April is unlike anything she’d ever been involved with.
"Penn’s an amazing place to compete in, whether in a relay or as an individual," she said. "It’s one of my favorite places to go."
Written by Frank Bertucci