Susan Williams is remembered for her incredible Bronze medal performance in triathlon at the Athens Games in 2004. An underdog on the USA team, Williams became the first American to medal in triathlon and, stepping up on the podium, she made history in more ways than one.
Williams was a swimmer growing up but when she hit a performance plateau in college, her Olympic dream faded away and was replaced with a career in aerospace engineering. But when triathlon was made an Olympic sport, the dream was rekindled and, at the age of 35, Williams qualified and raced in her first and only Olympics and her performance during the race and after it made history.
Williams discovered triathlon in 1994 and only a few years later turned professional, earning herself a residency spot with USA Triathlon. Regardless of the crash-laden start to her pro career, Williams soon proved to be at the top level of the sport just ahead of the Olympic debut of triathlon at the 2004 Sydney Games. However, Williams started to struggle in training. “In training I’d feel really good one day where I would do a workout and feel like a million bucks. Then the next day I would have to stop early because I was so tired. I found out my husband and I were expecting a child,” Williams explains.
Now with a child—whom they named Sydney after the Olympics—Williams reassessed her athletic dream. “I was so close and I had a good chance. So with my husband’s support, and my mom actually came to live with us for a while, I decided I was going to give it four more years and try for the Athens Olympics,” Williams says. Although she had decided to pursue her athletic career, Williams said she still struggled with the decision, especially when she decided to go out for long training camps across the country. “Honestly, there are times when I still wonder if that was the right decision, to kind of choose that pursuit over being more present with my daughter. There are tough choices and it was the choice I made,” she says.
Today motherhood and sport is becoming more common and acceptable but only twenty years ago for Williams, things were different. Williams only had a six-week maternity leave before resuming training while, in lieu of paternity leave, her husband took his two-weeks of vacation time to spend with the family. Williams also said people were surprised she decided to continue with sport. “I had a letter from [a college roommate] saying she didn’t approve of what I was doing,” Williams says. “I think that there’s a way to do both but I think in some people’s minds, no, it’s all family and kids and that’s the priority, period.”
Of course, Williams showed the world she was able to be at the pinnacle of her sport and be a mother when she stepped on to the podium at the Olympics. In the same letter, Williams explained that while her college roommate disapproved, she did acknowledge her achievement. “After she saw,, she said she did see I had a gift. But it’s almost like if I had not made the Olympic team, I wouldn’t have gotten that grace.”
After Williams did make the Olympic team, her and her husband were discussing whether to bring their daughter Sydney to Greece. “It was a safety thing but my husband was like, no, we are bringing her. In the back of his mind, if I made it to the award stand I was taking her up there,” she laughs. Williams was a late qualifier for Team USA and was the clear underdog going into the race but, when the top seeds faded on the run, Williams held strong and finished 3rd, surprising everyone, including herself. As they planned, in the midst of the pomp and circumstance of the medal ceremony, Williams slipped out of the parade line, jumped a barrier, took Sydney from her husband, and then ran back to her designated spot.* The famous photo of Williams from the Games has her holding her Sydney who is crowned with an Olympic laurel wreath and grasping the medal around Williams’ neck. “It’s my favorite, favorite photo,” Williams says.