This article was first published in the London Issue of Boat Magazine in April 2012.
“I phoned the photographer, Robert Wyatt, in the evening after the shoot. He’d been photographing Conrad Williams training at Crystal Palace Athletics Centre in the morning. At 7pm that night, when we spoke, Robert was still with him, at a Youth Club that Conrad has helped run in South East London for the past 11 years. Robert was playing table-tennis with some of the kids. “I can’t talk now,” he said, “I’m five points up.” I heard Conrad’s unmistakable laugh in the background.”
There are two questions you get asked when people find out you’re a runner – ‘Are you in the Olympics?’ and ‘Can I have a ticket?’ And these are the two questions no athlete hoping for a place in Team GB can answer. In July 2012, just three weeks before the opening ceremony, they’ll be waiting for the postman. Half the letters that land on those doormats will begin “Congratulations…” and half of them won’t.
“There’s gonna be such a silence around, you know, not everyone’s gonna make it. And if you’re one of those people that are in, you’re going to have to deal with the ones that aren’t,” said Conrad, “and if you’re the ones that aren’t, you’re gonna have to live with the fact that they’re going off to prepare for the Olympic games and you’ve been left behind.”
Conrad Williams is a 400m runner from London, and he’ll be one of those athletes waiting for the postman.
I suppose I had always assumed that runners were individualists, my experiences of running being a fairly antisocial pursuit – up at 6am, earphones in, one-man-against-the-world. When I meet Conrad, he couldn’t be further from that; empathetic, loud and sparky, he’s the archetypal team-player. When I arrive at the outdoor track at Brunel University, where he trains twice a week with his coach, Linford Christie, I hear their laughter before I see them. Eight guys are hanging out with Linford, gathered round sprinter Mark Lewis-Francis’ phone, joking about a Youtube clip. In the short time I spend with Conrad I get the sense that while D Day is looming ever closer, he’s loving every minute.
“It’s surreal seeing your face in the aisles at Sainsburys and Morrisons; or driving past Heathrow and seeing these massive billboards. Cos I’m just some guy from Lewisham and I’m just gonna go back and buy some food from the Caribbean shop. I’ll be with delegates and big top chief guys at LOCOG and the next minute I’m talking to people in the barber shop.”
‘Surreal’ is a word Conrad uses a lot. And it’s fitting, he hasn’t taken the most conventional route. At 29, this will be his first Olympic Games. Something of a late starter, he didn’t race until he was 21, and traces it all back to a conversation with a teacher at school.
“My head of year was a top guy,” said Conrad, “the main man. When he comes around, you shut up. He was this gentle giant, he’d never shout at any of us. He said to me, ‘When you leave school try running at some point’ but I was into basketball.”
Walking past a running track in Lewisham a few years after leaving school, those words came back to him and, ‘something just clicked.’
He went down to the track and enquired about joining.
“That was on Tuesday, and Saturday I was training with the guys. The next week I got picked to run for the club. They must have seen something that I didn’t even notice.”
Initially Conrad competed for the 200 metres, the long jump and triple jump, because he was, in his words – quite springy. The opportunity to run 400 metres came up, by accident. The relay team was a man down, and everyone else declined.
“I didn’t know how bad I was gonna feel afterwards; that’s why everyone else said no. Me, like an idiot went – I’ll do it. And I did it, and I ran quite well. The other guys went – alright, if that’s how you do with no training, then you might end up running really well.”
The next year Conrad represented Great Britain in the under-23s. He came third in his first race. He had barely been running for eight months, most of which was in the off-season, where there were very few competitive races.
Conrad’s big breakthrough came in 2009 when he won silver in the 4 x 400 metre relay in the World Championship in Berlin. That was where he says he realised how big athletics is. It was his first taste of a world of press conferences and television interviews. He says it was then that he understood he was doing something really special, how hard it is to keep doing it, and how much more training that demands. Until that point Conrad had been employed as a youth-worker, and though after his success in Berlin he turned professional, he couldn’t find it inside himself to relinquish that other role.
During our interview it didn’t once strike me as a coincidence that Conrad barely uttered a sentence without referring to ‘the guys’ or ‘we’ or dropping the name of a team-mate, coach, NBA hero or track rival. He constantly refers back to the people who make him who he is, and are important in his life.
Born in Jamaica, Conrad moved to South East London from Kingston in 1996, when he was fourteen. They lived in Woolwich, a multicultural area and made friends everywhere, some older, from his brother’s age group, others younger. As there wasn’t much to do, they were always out somewhere; hanging out, roaming the streets (as his mother puts it), listening to music in cars, talking about cars. His perspective on Youthwork seems shaped by these experiences.
“When you’re fourteen in London, depending on what route you take you can either grow up really fast, or be quite a kid. I ended up knowing people from both sides which is probably why I ended up doing youth work. I just want to make sure they can see the other side; there’s other options to do other things, because they do get a bad press. Yeah, they’ve not all got golden halos, but they’re not as bad as people make out.”
I asked him about his take on last year’s riots. He told me he thought that some of it was provoked, that some of it was naïve, and that some of the kids were opportunists – just jumping on the bandwagon because they’re young and know the system. Reflecting on it, his chief frustration is that the government doesn’t set proper boundaries for young people, but instead offers immunity. If you’re fifteen you can break a shop window with no fear of going to jail. A Youth-worker’s job is about building respect and setting boundaries, so when they tell the kids not to do something they’re more likely to listen.
“They don’t respect the government because they don’t see them,” said Conrad. “They see them as somebody in their offices telling them what to do, like a parent saying not to cross the road. Whereas when we tell them, they can see – well he’s saying that and he lives here, he’s from here and he’s gonna come back here.”
Conrad believes that while young people do look up to negative figures, they prefer to look to positive models, and they’d rather not make bad decisions.
“I realise as a youth worker it’s my job to be like the older brother. To say you don’t have to do this or that, and you don’t have to pretend that you’re bad, or that you’re older than you are, or to prove to other people that you’re not a kid. In my youth centre, they see my running as an outlet. They look up to it, because I’m not a footballer like everyone tries to be, I’m doing something completely different and they’re seeing the rewards. They’re seeing the races on TV, and they’ll see me in an interview talking about youth work, but then I come back to the youth club so I’m not just talking about it.”
Rather than seeing his passion for youth work as competition with his running, Conrad sees how the two sides of his work life feed each other. The Olympics is the obvious goal for the present, but Conrad is already starting to look beyond. As a Level 2 coach, he’s trying to set up something within coaching that can incorporate a side of athletics within youth work and vice versa. He’s planning to organise a competition with the youth service where different clubs or organisations compete at a local track. But that takes time, and that’s something Conrad doesn’t have a lot of at present. Right now, it’s all about making sure the right envelope comes through his letterbox.
“Looking back, I’ve achieved quite a lot of my goals. My goals were to make every championship, to run individually in every championship and to get a medal from every championship. So far, I’ve done well, I’m just missing the Olympic one, that’s the only one I haven’t got. So that’s the goal – to go to the Olympic Games and to be in the final. To get there I work it back, step by step so that it’s lots of smaller goals. You start by getting to training on time every day.”
Before I go, Conrad shows me a picture of his two year old son, Theo, who’s already following in his father’s footsteps by running round the house in circles.
“If he takes up running, it’d be great because I’m trying to set all the records now, then if he beats my records, I know he’ll be doing well at running. It’s kind of strange to think about running fast, so that your son can try and run faster.”
But then I think that’s exactly what makes Conrad tick – leading by example.
By Davey Spens – read his reflection on Olympic Parents.
Photography by Robert Wyatt