Interview: Silver Medallist Ron Williams
Ron Williams’ life is golden – you might not know it by the silver or bronze medals hanging around his neck, but considering that this one-legged cyclist won those medals at the Paralymic Athens Games after his teenage battle with cancer, the association begins to shine. We sat down with Ron during his recent trip to meet the US President in Washington DC.
Fighting For Life
It’s been a busy year for the 30 year old cyclist, who in addition to winning the medals in Athens and meeting the US President last week, was also nominated earlier for a 2004 ESPY Award in the category of Best Athlete with a Disability. But for a guy who seems to be riding high these days, things weren’t always so rosy.
At the tender age of 14, as a member of the U.S. Jr. National Soccer Team with a sore shin, Williams was diagnosed with Osteogenic Sarcoma, a malignant type of bone tumor most common in children. The cancer had begun in his left lung but by the time he was diagnosed, it had already metastasized to his right lung. The spots of tumor were surgically removed from his lung, but his leg could not be saved. It had to be amputated below the knee. For any teen, these events would be tragic, but Ron Williams was not about to let cancer slow him down.
As a naturally gifted athlete with an incredibly supportive family, Ron went on to accell in water skiing where he won two World titles for Disabled Slalom and Disabled Jumping competitions. He was also the World Disabled Overall Champion in 1991, 1993, and 1995.
Moving on to cycling, the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney provided a glimpse of Williams’ cycling abilities with a respectable 5th place in the 1 km Time Trial and 7th in the 4 km pursuit. He also placed 9th in the Road Race. Additional titles that Willams holds include six Paralympic European titles, three silver and three bronze, and national champion titles in 2001, 2002, and 2003.
Leg or no leg, this guy’s a winner.
This year Williams served as captain of the U.S. Paralympic cycling team, along side teammates Paul Martin and Dan Nicholson, earned a Silver medal in the Team Sprint. Williams also earned a bronze for the overall road events. The latter was an omnium competition for the road race and individual time trial.
LET’S MEET RON WILLIAMS
Wearing jeans, a funky button-down shirt over a white t-shirt, and looking really fit, Williams was open, engaging, and always smiling…
Pez: Ron, while setting up this interview I asked you where you were living these days and you responded “the 205, Birmingham.” What’s up with that?
RW: Since Ruben Studdard sported “205” t-shirts on “American Idol” we refer to Birmingham, Alabama as “The 205.”
Pez: So what was growing up in the Williams household like and did it change after your diagnosis of cancer that freshman year of high school?
RW: Cancer didn’t change the family outlook. I was fortunate to grow up in a family that gave 100% support for anything I wanted to do. My mom would say, “lets do it” for whatever it was I had in mind. She was a nurse so when the cancer came she knew what to expect. My 18 months of chemotherapy was just like waking up in the morning, something I had to do, not a big tragedy. Most chemo now is outpatient, but when I had it done it was a clinical trial, high dosage, so I was admitted to the hospital. The treatment I received as a clinical trial is now the standard for children with bone cancer, which is really good to know. Upwards of 60% of children with cancer are enrolled in clinical trials, which leads to incredible progress in cancer treatment. I had chemo for six months, then my leg amputated, and another 12 months of chemo to rid the body of any cancer cells that might have escaped. I earned my learners permit with one leg though.
PEZ: You’re still involved with Camp Sunshine, the summer camp for children with cancer. What did you learn or take from it while attending and describe your involvement today.
RW: Camp Sunshine’s mission is to give children with cancer a place to be kids again. It’s a place for them to meet other kids with cancer that have been through the same things that they have. You learn that you are not weird or different, and that even though you may be sick, you can still have fun.
The unsuspecting champ gets caught with his PEZ banner up…
I was a camper every summer until I turned 18, and then worked as a Counselor in Training or CIT for two years. Now I am a counselor for 15-18 year old boys during one-week camps in the summer time, spring and fall retreats, and various other camp trips.
Additionally, I’m on the Board of Directors for Camp Sunshine, attending quarterly meetings, raising funds for the camp, and managing programs. I can trace everything good in my life back to Camp Sunshine. It is a special place that helped shape the direction my life has gone.
PEZ: You have won many awards in both cycling and water skiing. What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
RW: Being a cancer survivor is the greatest title that I have. I wouldn’t do the things I’m doing today if I didn’t get cancer…it definitely changed my life and for the better! Since battling cancer I know how important life is… If you asked me if I would change my disability… the answer would be no.
PEZ: Your always smiling…
RW: Why not enjoy the balance of your life? I giggle a lot, but there are down days of course. I have found happiness in being around to enjoy life, and this year has been an especially good one…I’m doing what I love and am surrounded with incredible people every day. It’s the Live Strong message – to live every day to its fullest.
Ron’s wife Brooke is his biggest supporter.
PEZ: Your one year wedding anniversary is coming up December 27. What will you and Brooke be doing?
RW: I’ve been pretty busy this year, so I want to slow down and plan something special. Brooke’s so supportive and into what I’m doing but she personally has a lot coming up in the next six months, interviewing for her residency after completing her 4th year of medical school. This year’s gonna be about her.
PEZ: So tell us a bit more about this very supportive future doctor…
RW: She’s the quintessential Southern Belle, raised in a conservative home in Montgomery, Alabama. She’s very engaging and of course very smart. I’m thankful to have met her and to have married her. She’s totally supportive, beautiful, a stunning lady. She has never looked at my disability as a disadvantage. Brooke is always so proud of the accomplishments that I achieve, and I am proud of her accomplishments too. We make a good team. She studies so much and I ride and work so much but we always try to have a good dinner and enjoy our time together. We’re great partners.
PEZ: Other than your family and friends, who have your biggest supporters been over the years?
RW: Well, Camp Sunshine has definitely been there for me. Bristol-Myers Squibb has been huge. They have really stepped up and recognized the goodwill from sponsoring and elite athlete. Their sponsorship and support has been great. Southwire Corporation, the company I’ve worked for over the past nine years also has been a huge reason I’ve been able to achieve my dreams. They’ve allowed me a ridiculous amount of time for training, and I really appreciate that.
Jim Lehman, my Carmichael Training Systems coach has always been there for me. I started with Chris Carmichael from the beginning with CTS in ’99, but since Sydney, Jim has been my coach. Jim keeps everything driving forward. It’s good to know that the coaches at CTS know everything I’ve done over the years.
I have a handful of training partners in Birmingham that will ride with me when I call. It doesn’t matter what the weather is, they’re there for me. Thanks guys.
PEZ: What do you do at Southwire?
RW: I’m a field sales rep for the State of Alabama and the Panhandle of Florida. We sell products to electrical distributors. Southwire is the largest wire and cable manufacturer in North America with $2.7 billion in sales. Working out of my house I am able to train more easily. They are fully supportive of me. Accommodating of training camps, the Olympics, they’re just awesome.
PEZ: Tell me about Athens and what your training was like leading up to it.
RW: The same as the past few years but we did six 3-week camps as a team with a focus on the road race and road time trial events. A typical week of training was 17-23 hours. At the training camps we had two workouts per day. A 2.5-3.5 hour session in the morning and the same later in the afternoon. It was great when the able-bodied athletes overlapped with us for recovery rides or track workouts. It was good for everyone to ride together.
PEZ: What was your role at the Tour of Hope?
RW: Well, the Tour of Hope is a cross-country bike ride sponsored by Bristol-Myers Squibb and Lance Armstrong to help raise awareness for cancer and clinical trials. In 2003 I was one of 26 riders for the seven day, 3000-mile relay-style trip. They called me “The Mailman” since I always delivered. We needed to average 20mph to make it across the country in seven days, so I was always pushing the pace, up and down mountains. The ride started in Los Angeles and ended in DC, with Trek Travel handling all the logistics.
I rode with Lance and chilled with him during the Tour of Hope. Afterwards, he said he was coming to Birmingham and would give me a call. I thought yea, Lance is going to call, right. Don’t you know he called and wanted to hang out? I didn’t tell any of my friends but Lance and I just showed up at their doorstep and said, ”let’s work out.” My buddies are also runners and since Lance didn’t bring a bike, they all ran and I rode next to them on my mountain bike. Now my friends ask, “when is “Uncle Lance” coming back?”
I think Lance just wants to be a normal guy. We didn’t talk all that much about cycling, just normal stuff. I saw him here in DC last week after the 2004 Tour of Hope but he was just mobbed.
Once, Lance asked my best time for a 40k TT and told him it was a 57:30. He responded some Tour de France riders aren’t able to turn that kind of time. Lance and I have a mutual respect for each other as elite athletes. I’d like to think of us as friends, and I hope to work together with him in the cancer community in the future.
PEZ: Any A-Style logos on the Athens course? It is “A”thens after all.
RW: Don’t know what that is (Pez note: I proceeded to explain it to this southern gentleman) but I did see a road sign that was odd-turned on its side it was like a before ad for Viagra. I’ll try to send you a copy.
Pez: Are you a regular Pez Reader? What’s your favorite part?
RW: Last winter on a group ride in Athens, GA called the “Winter Bike League” someone asked if I read the SRM review on Pez. They said that Pez is this awesome sight that basically cuts out all the BS and gives great feedback. Oh yea, and EuroTrash and of course the Daily Distractions are my favorite things on PEZ.
THE SPEED ROUND
PEZ: Ready for a Pez speed round? Just fill in the blank, choose, or say what comes into your head first.
-2005 Tour de France winner
RW: Lance, but if he doesn’t go then Ullrich but I’d like to see Floyd win.
-Election winner, Bush or Kerry?
-UCI Pro Tour, Yes or No?
RW: No, but it’s needed.
-Weekend in Paris or a weekend in Tuscany?
-Road or Track racing?
-Guns N’ Roses or Velvet Revolver
RW: Guns N’ Roses.
(Pez Note: after explaining how cool the new Velvet Revolver video is for “Fall To Pieces” since it deals with Scott Weilands’s life I convinced Williams to consider the latter. The video is cool.)
PEZ: So what’s next for Ron Williams?
Jim Lehman and I have tentatively put on the calendar a mountain bike race across Costa Rica in November 2005. It’s basically a three-day endurance event. I’ll be upgrading to Cat 2 and focusing on stage races to help raise awareness of athletes with disabilities. I want to do more able-bodied races to show what an athlete with a disability can do.
I will lead a healthy and active lifestyle and give back to the cancer society. I hope to continue to share my story, volunteer, and follow the credo of the “live strong” bracelets.
Thanks Ron for talking us with us!