Lauryn Williams never aspired to be a professional athlete.
In 2004, the 20-year-old University of Miami junior won the 100m at the NCAA Outdoor Championships in 10.97, the fastest American time that season and the second-fastest time in the world.
In that moment, everything had changed.
"It was the Olympic year and I was the fastest American," she remembers. "I was 20 years old. I wasn't even old enough to drink yet!"
She would place third in the U.S. Olympic Trials and earn silver in the 100m at the Athens Games. She ultimately earned eight global medals between the Olympics and worlds, including the 2005 IAAF World Championships 100m title. Williams later became the first American woman to earn a medal at both the Summer and Winter Olympics after winning silver in the two-woman bobsled with Elana Meyers at the 2014 Sochi Games.
But back in 2004, she had no idea how to navigate the professional opportunities that were now open to her after her NCAA win.
"Do you go pro before the Trials, during the Trials, or after the Trials?" Williams said of her situation, one faced by every elite college athlete looking to turn pro in a world or Olympic year. "Your earning potential is different based on all those different situations. If you don't do well in the competition and you went pro, then you got a number locked in, or, if you do really great, maybe now you are worth more money.
"[You have to decide if waiting] is worth the risk for a better contract."
Williams had the benefit of a wizened mentor in her University of Miami coach, Amy Deem, who helped Williams find a reputable agent in Ray Flynn and would continue to coach her throughout most of her professional career. But Williams acknowledges that she was lucky, and many young pros--especially those leaving the high school ranks early--do not have such a fine-tuned support system right in front of them.
Since being selected as treasurer to the USATF Athletes Advisory Committee (AAC) last December, Williams has launched a monthly webinar series, the Business of Track & Field, designed to aid young professional track and field athletes in making informed decisions about their futures on and off the track.
I spoke with her at the Grand Sheraton Hotel in Sacramento, California, after a session she held for the parents of new pro runners, or young runners considering professional options, at the USATF Outdoor Championships last week. Also on the panel were former USATF stars Anne Shadle, Moushaumi Robinson, Jeff Hartwig, Khadevis Robinson, all of whom are still involved in the sport in different capacities, and Manteo Mitchell, a 2012 Olympic silver medalist and the only one of the group who is still an active athlete.
There has certainly been an influx in teens turning pro over the last few years, the results of which were a mixed bag in Sacramento.
There's Donavan Brazier, whose 800m title at the Championships validated the 20-year-old's pro contract with Nike, much ballyhooed on internet message boards after the Texas A&M freshman broke the NCAA record and subsequently failed to advance from the prelims at the Olympic Trials last year.
"This is an opportunity for them to know the things we didn't know," Williams said of the AAC webinars. "We were blind leading the blind. No one was there to mentor us or answer our questions. I would love to get the conversation going and help young athletes make good decisions with their earnings, make good decisions with their support staff, who they're hanging around, supplements and morals and values. There's so many aspects of the sport that can help you sink or fail."
At her day job, the 33-year-old is the founder of Worth Winning, a financial planning company targeted to young people and professional athletes. One of the main reasons she chose this avenue for her profession is that because as a young track star herself, she lacked much credible financial planning advice.
Moushaumi Robinson said as much when she shared one of the day's most memorable anecdotes about signing her first professional contract with Nike, which happened in a whirlwind year after graduating from the University of Texas that saw her place sixth at USAs and win an Olympic gold medal for her efforts in the 4x400m relay prelims at the 2004 Athens Games.
Lauryn Williams and Moushaumi Robinson speak candidly to the AAC parents panel about their early experiences finding an agent:
"Imagine, at 24, wondering, 'This is someone who's supposed to look out for me, this is someone who's supposed to care about me.' That whole day, I'm on the phone, I called my mom--'I don't know if I want to do this, is this what this sport is?' I called coaches, like 'Is this how y'all do it?' I took my contract and--don't let this leave the room*--I redid it. I redid the entire contract and faxed it over to Nike and put all my figures in there."
"Now I know that the bonus structure is pretty much infinite," Robinson said. "We don't really know if you're gonna get your bonus, but if you do, we got the money but if you don't, no big deal. I'm like, 'Hey... the world record's 47. If I break the world record, I'm done running. Seventy-five is not enough to be done--that's enough to get a nice shoe, maybe a couple of nice cars!"
Robinson is right to fight for as much money as she could get while at the peak of her career. She would switch agents again later in life after the birth of her first child, as she transitioned her personal brand from that of an elite athlete to that of a health and fitness advocate more directly involved in the community.
"To avoid pitfalls, just don't forget your goals," she said. "Don't lose sight of why you really do this and if you do this for the money. If athletes are saying, 'Oh, I want to do this to get a six-figure deal,' you have to look at your sport and how you're branding yourself. If you're a thrower, you cannot become wealthy off of doing this. But you can have a brand."
Williams has experienced firsthand the financial highs and lows that reward and plague Olympic sport athletes.
She signed on with Flynn after her first Olympic Trials but before the Athens Games and immediately landed with sportswear juggernaut Nike. Her five-year contract paid out bonuses for good performances and also included reduction clauses for poor performances, but she said, "Fortunately, I was on the upswing at that time of my career; every year, there were options for me to be reduced but I headed upward and onward."
He also said he strived to save $10,000 every year, which often meant saving more than that in a good year to offset less income during a lean competition year.
"When I came out, I won USAs indoors and outdoors," he said. "I didn't go out and buy a new car. I understood I needed to save this money. I happened to be able to run to 36, but most runners do not run that long. The law of averages kicks in."
Khadevis Robinson addresses the parents' panel on how to approach your first pro contract as well as how college coaches recruit high school athletes:
After her five-year deal with Nike expired, Williams signed with Saucony from 2010 to 2013. It was under Saucony's sponsorship that Williams finally earned her Olympic gold medal with a team effort in the 4x100m at the 2012 London Games, after disappointing disqualifications in both 2004 and 2008. She was sixth in the 100m finals at the 2012 Olympic Trials to earn her relay spot, but one year later, failed to advance from the semifinals at USAs and announced she would retire at the end of the season.
"When I got into bobsled, I had no contract so I was a free agent like many other track athletes, or bobsledders, if you will," Williams said. "I've definitely seen both sides of [the finances of an Olympic athlete], piecing together funds and fundraising in order to compete in the sport that you love.
"One of the things that I talked about [in the seminar] is the idea of sacrifice versus choice. A lot of times the lower level athletes are piecing together funds-'Oh, I've got to work this job,' and 'I got $100 here' and 'I got a little bit of prize money here'--and everyone's like, 'Oh, poor them, poor them.' But I don't think that the athletes at the lower level should think they're sacrificing so much to do this, it's that they're making a choice to do this because this is what they love. And that's what I learned from bobsled--it's not a sacrifice.
"Yes, this is not the most ideal conditions, wouldn't we love to have hundreds of sponsors and a really lavish lifestyle? But we do this because we love it; it doesn't matter if it's a five-dollar hotel and eggs and bread for breakfast. I think sometimes people get caught up in the idea that this is about the money, the fame, the fortune. You show up everyday because it's what you're passionate about, and you would do it whether you're paid or not. It's great when you do get paid to do it, but I'm here for a different reason and everything else is an extra benefit and I think more comes to you when you approach it like that."
*Robinson was aware that several cameras were filming the entire panel session