U.S. track star Angela Williams, one of the fastest sprinters in the world, knows something about life's challenges. Injury and illness kept her from qualifying for the 1996 and 2000 Olympics.
But that hasn't changed her winning philosophy, which she shared Friday with 150 female inmates at the California Youth Authority campus in Camarillo.
"Be positive, stay focused, set some dreams, look inside," said Williams, 24. "And remember, it's never too late. You're not going to win every time. What's important is that you make the effort."
CYA Sgt. Noel Chestnut, one of Williams' former coaches, invited her to the campus to help motivate the young women, especially the 28 who signed up for the new track program he designed. Male wards at the once-coed facility were transferred in February.
During her brief talk, Williams told the audience of her personal struggles of trying to make it to the Olympics. Before the 1996 Games in Atlanta -- when she was ranked among the fastest high school sprinters in the country -- she pulled a hamstring during a qualifying race. Four years later, she came down with the flu the day the Olympic trials began, so she never qualified for Sydney.
And last season Williams suffered from shin splints but continued to race, which only made the condition worse. She hasn't raced much this year and has until only July 9 to get ready for the 2004 U.S. Olympic trials in Sacramento.
"There's a lot of people who doubt that I can come back from this type of injury," she said. "But I'm not worried, because I run for a higher source -- that's the Lord. God puts everyone here for a purpose.
"I may not be in you guys' situation, but I've had my trials and tribulations too," Williams said. "That's the point of life. There will always be obstacles. Every day something is going to be in your way, but you can never give up."
The daughter of a track coach, Williams has been running since she was 5. She said she took her competitiveness from the track and transferred it to the classroom, always trying to get better grades than other students.
It worked. Williams graduated from Chino High School with a 4.29 grade point average. She then maintained a B average while pursuing her degree in public policy and management at USC. While there, she became the first athlete to win the national college 100-meter championship four times.
"I've been in it a long time, but I'm still very young," she told the inmates. "Women runners peak at 26 or 27, so I've got a lot of years to go."
In a question-and-answer session, Williams explained that she was a bit of a tomboy growing up and now videotapes music videos to practice dancing, which she loves. Williams said she would continue to race even if she brought home Olympic gold, and that one day she wants to marry and have a big family.
Williams' relationship with Chestnut dates back to 1990 when she was a member of the Southern California Cheetahs, an all-girl track team, and he was an assistant coach.
A former track athlete himself at Cal Lutheran University in the 1980s, Chestnut decided to start the CYA program by recruiting participants from all of the Camarillo facility's seven dormitories. The first relay race was held earlier this week and Friday the runners had a pizza party and cake to celebrate their participation.
Desiree Campbell, 21, has just one week before she finishes her seven-year stint at the detention center. Her performance on the first-place relay team led Chestnut to suggest that she could contend for a walk-on spot on the track squad after she enrolls at San Diego State.
"The coach has made me realize I had it in me," Campbell said. "I had been in track before, but this reminded me how much I enjoyed it."