Athletics: Success runs in the Williams family

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The Independent Online

There was a time when the Welsh rugby union team not only caught their planes, they travelled with a wing and more than a prayer too. Those were the days when they had J J Williams flying down the left wing. Not that the Bridgend man was pining for the lost glory days of the 1970s last week, when the Six Nations wooden- spoonists of 2003 famously failed to catch their flight from Heathrow to Auckland. He was too busy thinking about athletics - and keeping his fleet-footed offspring following in his footsteps.

"I'm off up to the track later on, actually," he said at Tuesday tea-time. "I'm there most nights. I don't coach the kids. I just oversee what they do. And I'm loving it. I love athletics. I went up to a British League match in Liverpool the other week and it was pouring with rain, but it was great. I really enjoyed it."

Williams will no doubt enjoy himself, too, at Loughborough this afternoon. He will be watching his 19-year-old son, Rhys, take part in the Loughborough international meeting, the traditional curtain-raiser to the top-class domestic track-and- field season. Williams Jnr, who competes for the Great Britain Under-20 team in the 400m hurdles, happens to be one of the rising young stars of British athletics. Two years ago he won the European Youth Olympic title in Murcia, Spain, and last summer he reached the semi-finals at the World Junior Championships in Kingston, Jamaica. Next month he will be a medal prospect at the European Junior Championships in Tampere, Finland.

It might have been different. Rhys was a full-back with the Welsh Under-18 rugby union squad before he chose to follow an athletics career instead. It was as a rugby player that his father made his name, scoring 12 tries in 30 internationals for the greatest Welsh side of all time and plundering five tries in seven Tests for the Lions. It was as a sprinter, though, that J J first made it to international level.

As plain John Williams, he ran for Wales in the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh (he became known as J J to avoid a clash of identity with the other John Williams in the Welsh rugby team, J P R). He competed in the opening 100m heat, clocking 10.6sec for fifth place, behind Hasely Crawford, the Trinidadian who won the Olympic title in Montreal in 1976. He also reached the quarter-finals of the 200m - finishing seventh in a race won by Don Quarrie, the 1976 Olympic champion at that distance - and was a member of the Welsh team who came fifth in the 4 x 100m relay final, taking the baton from Lynn Davies on the third leg.

"I ran in the World Student Games, too, and won a Great Britain Under-23 vest," J J reflected. "But rugby was always in my blood. I played for the Welsh schools team at outside-half. And it was always my intention to go back to it. It's a bit different with Rhys. I think athletics is more in his blood than rugby. And he is a better athlete than I was, anyway.

"I was fast, but he's a better athlete. He's bigger and stronger. I realised when I got to 21 that I could be a good British standard athlete but I would never be a world star. So I went back to rugby, and it was obviously a good move."

It was indeed - just as picking track and field was a good move by Rhys. A first-year sports science student at Loughborough University, he has joined the group of athletes being coached by Nick Dakin, rubbing shoulders with Chris Rawlinson, the Commonwealth 400m hurdles champion, and Iwan Thomas, who will be continuing his comeback in the flat 400m in the Loughborough meeting this afternoon.

"It's great to train with so many great athletes," Rhys said. "Iwan has always been a hero of mine. For me, when I was growing up in Wales, there were never any real role models in rugby, but there were in athletics. Colin Jackson was always a big hero of mine as well."

There was, of course, a Welsh rugby hero actually living in the Williams household in Bridgend. Rhys has yet to see any film of his father sprinting in the Commonwealth Games, but he has seen the rugby videos from the 1970s. "He's a great example to follow," he said. "I'm following in his footsteps, and if I do half as well as he did I'll be a happy man."

Not that Rhys is the only Williams child following in the footsteps of their 55-year-old father, who runs several businesses in South Wales, as well as the recently formed Former Welsh International Rugby Union Players' Association. James, 20, is a promising middle-distance runner and captain of the track-and-field team at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff. Kathryn, 25, is a former Great Britain junior 400m hurdler who is on the comeback trail.

"There's also Kathryn's partner, Chris Moss, who ran for Britain in the 800m at the world indoors in Birmingham," J J said. "He lives down here in Wales with Kath-ryn. So we're all involved in athletics to a great extent. We went off to South Africa to train at Christmas and again at Easter - all of us and Rhys's coach down here, Wynford Leyshon. We don't mess about."