After medaling in her fourth and final Olympic Games for the Jamaican team, Winter Garden resident Novlene Williams-Mills described the experience in one word: emotional.
Growing up in Jamaica as one of nine children, Williams-Mills originally started off playing netball. But then a friend of hers told their physical education coach that she was also a great runner.
“He invited me to the track team, and from then on the next year I joined,” Williams-Mills said. “I was still playing netball but it was too much trying to do both at the school, so I ended up choosing track and that led me here.”
When she was 18, she left Jamaica to study at Essex County College in New Jersey before ending up at the University of Florida, where she trained under the guidance of Tom Jones on the Gators’ track-and-field team. She graduated in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in recreation, parks and tourism.
Now a seven-year Winter Garden resident and full-time athlete, Williams-Mills recently returned from three weeks in Rio de Janeiro, a silver medal in tow. She and her three teammates placed second behind the United States in the women’s 4x400 meter relay with a time of 3:20.34.
The team was compiled at the June Olympic Trials in Kingston, Jamaica, bringing together four women who normally compete against each other.
“When we have the trials, more than likely most of those girls are competing with you at some point in the season, so we always would run against each other,” Williams-Mills said. “One thing for sure is when we put a relay team together, we come together as a team. It’s not about me, it’s not about that person — it’s about Jamaica’s 4x4 team.”
A seasoned Olympian, Williams-Mills knew the team’s success at the games would come down to execution. But it still was bittersweet knowing it was her final time competing in the Olympics. After representing her home country in Athens, Beijing and London previously, experiencing it all for the last time in Rio de Janeiro was special because of the journey to get there.
In 2012, she had been diagnosed with breast cancer just a month or two before the Olympics. However, she still ran the race and helped Jamaica win a bronze medal.
“To four years later get back to the athlete that I know I am and to be able to close that chapter of my career and be like, ‘This is my last Olympics; this is it,’ for me it means so much,” she said. “I look at life, and I’m like, ‘I get a second chance to do what I love to do.’ A lot of people don’t get that second chance. So, for me, that was the second chance — something where four years ago I was thinking about cancer. Now I can think about just focusing on the race and enjoying the moment.”
Going into the 4x400 finals, Williams-Mills knew based on how her team had been running that it would be a close battle between Jamaica and the U.S. Although the U.S. edged out its sixth-consecutive victory in the event, one lesson she has learned throughout her career is that it’s always about being thankful for the experience and humble in the moment.
“So many people enter the games, and not everybody can walk away with a medal,” she said. “At the end of the day, walking away with a medal is always a humbling experience for me.”
Back home in Jamaica and here in Winter Garden, her family and her husband are always cheering her on, even if they couldn’t be in Rio themselves. Williams-Mills said her family is always happy and thankful for her accomplishments.
“A lot of people don’t even get the chance to say, ‘I’m an Olympian,’ or even get the chance to be at four Olympics, so for me I am blessed beyond measures that I can even think of,” she said. “Most people get one chance; I got four, and for that I’m eternally grateful.”
Contact Danielle Hendrix at [email protected].