HEALTH MATTERS: The Olympian Who Beat Cancer

These days, Novelene Williams-Mills is a personal trainer with the Roper YMCA in Winter Garden. But she also has four Olympic medals and has overcome a breast cancer diagnosis

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  • | 8:11 a.m. August 20, 2021
  • West Orange Times & Observer
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If Novlene Williams-Mills looks familiar, it may be because she represented Jamaica in four Olympics and won four medals (three silver, one bronze) as part of the 4x400-meter relay. 

She also added a world championship in the relay at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing. 

Or it may be because you’ve seen her as a personal trainer with the Roper YMCA in Winter Garden. 

In many ways, she personifies health and fitness. And you’d never know she is also a breast cancer survivor. 

Just before the 2012 Olympics in London, Williams-Mills received the most stunning news of her life: Her cancer diagnosis.

“That’s not news that anybody wants to hear,” she said. “Nobody wants to hear the words, ‘You have cancer.’ That was a gut-wrenching feeling — like somebody stabbed you in the back.” 


Unfortunately, cancer was not something with which she was unfamiliar. Williams-Mills’ older sister died of ovarian cancer in 2010, and her mother had her own battle with cancer. Now, it was affecting her. 

There was some doubt as to whether she could compete at the Jamaican Olympic Trials. For a moment, all the hard work she had put into making the Olympic team was in jeopardy. 

Even so, she never let that thought cross her mind.  

“Failure was not an option,” Williams-Mills said. 

After consulting with her doctor, she got the OK to compete at trials and, subsequently, the Olympics. But, she had a mastectomy three days after competition, and  Williams-Mills wondered if this would be the last Olympic race she would run.

At the London Olympics that summer, she came home with a bronze medal in the 4x400-meter relay. She also finished fifth in the 400-meter final. Jamaica was later awarded the silver medal in the event after the Russian team, which initially won silver, was disqualified after runner Antonina Krivoshapka failed a drug test. 

After everything Williams-Mills had gone through, coming home with a medal was the best feeling in the world. 

“That medal will always hold a special place for me,” Williams-Mills said. “Walking out on that track knowing my teammates were depending on me, knowing of this burden on my shoulders, that I was going to have surgery three days after leaving London — there was so much emotion. I have so many tears to that medal. If I hadn’t run another race, I would be walking away with a medal.” 

A year later, Williams-Mills finally told the world her story. And a few years later, she competed in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro before retiring in 2017. 


Williams-Mills is no stranger to adversity. Having grown up in Jamaica with eight other siblings and, as she put it, not a lot of resources, Williams-Mills understood the value of hard work and never giving up from an early age. That hard work took her all the way to the University of Florida, where she ran track for the Gators. 

“You have to work for what you want,” Williams-Mills said. “When given the opportunity to come to the U.S. on a scholarship, I had to work hard because I needed a better life. … I was taught: Work hard for what you want.” 

Now as a personal trainer specializing in weight loss for the YMCA of Central Florida, Williams-Mills brings that attitude while working with her clients. She said what gives her the greatest joy in her job is seeing her clients hit their goals. 

“It’s always amazing knowing you made a difference in someone’s life when they tell you, ‘This shirt or dress didn’t used to fit me but now it does,’” Williams-Mills said. “I always encourage my clients to never give up, and to see the results with them is great.”

“You have to work for what you want. When given the opportunity to come to the U.S. on a scholarship, I had to work hard because I needed a better life. … I was taught: Work hard for what you want.” – Novlene Williams-Mills

A little more than eight years after defeating cancer and having a mastectomy, Williams-Mills and her husband, Jameel, welcomed twin boys, Jamari and Jameir, into their family. 

And now, as a mother, Williams-Mills hopes to pass on the determination that has gotten her to four Olympics and the title of “cancer survivor,” and to always be respectful and thankful for everything they have.


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