By Pete Cava
Last year should have been the greatest of Karjuan Williams' life. He claimed a U.S. title and won a silver medal in international competition. But toward summer's end, natural forces blew his hometown in tatters and tore his world apart.
But Williams is back on rack this indoor season, with a little help from his friends … and one complete stranger. Karjuan (pronounced 'kar-wahn') will go to the Nike Indoor Nationals as the defending 800-meter champion. The National Scholastic Sports Foundation-sponsored event takes place March 11-12 at Prince George's Sports and Learning Complex in Landover, Maryland.
At the 2004 U.S. Junior Olympic Championships in Eugene, Ore.,Williams won the 15-16-year-old 800m title. At the time, he was a freshman at St. Augustine High School in New Orleans, and his time of one minute, 50.87 seconds made him the top underclassmen on the annual U.S. prep list. "At that point, I was just learning as much as I could," said Williams, a polite young man with a gift for lively conversation. " I was just ignorant about what I was doing. I was just running!"
Williams burst onto the national scene in March 2005 with an unexpected victory at the Nike Indoor Nationals. He stayed in the spotlight with a strong showing at the Louisiana state meet in Baton Rouge two months later. Williams was the 400m runnerup and ran the second leg for St. Augustine's victorious 4x400 relay. He won the 800m with a meet record 1:50.33 -- at that point, the fastest prep time of the season.
On June 18 at the Nike Outdoor Nationals in Greensboro, N.C., Williams ran a race that produced the year's quickest high school 800m mark He took an early lead, passing the first lap in 54.2. Rob Novak of Borden (N.J.) Regional High School passed Williams with about 250 meters remaining. The pair battled down the stretch but Novak maintained the lead, racing home in 1:49.84 -- the year's only sub-1:50 prep performance -- with Williams second in 1:50.14. "I didn't expect this at all," said a surprised Novak.
Williams admitted to being a tad overwhelmed by the prestigious field at the Nike Outdoor Nationals. "I'd never been in a race where everybody was seeded with times like that," he said. "I was a little intimidated. And he [Novak] ran a perfect race."
Six days later at the U.S. Junior Championships in Carson, Calif., Williams got even. Running against a field that included most of the nation's top preps and college freshmen, he led throughout and finished in 1:50.88. Novak was third in 1:51.22, behind Eastern Michigan's Jacob DuBois, the runnerup in 1:51.17. "It was a tactical race," said Williams. "I wasn't running for time. I was just running to win."
The Junior meet took place concurrently with the USA Championships, and later that day Karjuan watched his brother Joel -- currently a junior at Jackson State -- run the 800m semifinals of the nationals. When they were kids, Joel launched Karjuan's track career by inviting his little brother join him on training runs. "I watch the things he does and the mistakes he makes because he's my older brother," Karjuan impishly told interviewers.
Karjuan's victory qualified him for the Pan American Junior Championships in Windsor, Ontario. In a close final on July 30, Williams took the silver medal. Gilder Barboza of Venezuela edged him by twenty-one-hundredths of a second, 1:50.76 to 1:50.97.
That Pan Am performance gave Williams four of the year's top ten high school times. His 1:50.14 at the Nike Outdoor Nationals was second only to Rob Novak's 1:49.84. Williams' 1:50.33 at the state meet was good for third. The 1:50.88 at Junior Nationals gave him ninth place on the annual prep list, while the 1:50.97 in Windsor ranked tenth. Karjuan Williams appeared to be on top of the world.
On August 29 Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast. The Williams family -- Karjuan, his mother Jimmie Lee and sisters Cheryse, 22, and Jamie, 15 -- left New Orleans for the sanctuary of a relative's home in Lake Charles, La., about 200 miles west. Before he left, Karjuan grabbed his pet gerbil, his national team uniform and his Nike Indoor Nationals championship ring.
When they returned to River Ridge, on the outskirts of New Orleans, they found their house wasn't badly damaged. But there was no electricity and no running water. Looters had taken clothing, furniture and anything else they could cart away. "We grabbed whatever we could when we got back," said Williams, "but there wasn't much to grab. My Nike Indoor bag was gone, my Nike shoes were gone, my spikes were gone. I remember thinking, Who steals track spikes?!?"
Through Jackie Callender, his coach, Williams learned that an acquaintance was worried about him: former Notre Dame runner Nicholas Sparks, the author of the best-selling novel True Believer. The 40-year-old Sparks, who doubles as a volunteer track coach at New Bern, N.C., High School, had met Karjuan at the Junior Championships. He was offering assistance to the Williams family, but they were skeptical. "It was kind of weird," said Karjuan. "It was like, 'Well, who is this? Who does something like that?'"
A few weeks later, Hurricane Rita struck, and once again the Williams family had to evacuate. Crammed into an open truck, they took off for Lake Charles -- only to discover the hurricane was heading that way too, following like a giant swarm of killer bees. Shifting gears, they headed north. But the next big city, Little Rock, Ark., was also in the hurricane's destructive path.
By now Karjuan and his family were nearly out of money, out of gas and out of hope. Like Blanche DuBois in Truman Capote's Streetcar Named Desire, the only recourse was the kindness of strangers. The North Carolina novelist, Nicholas Sparks, was their last option. And nobody in the Williams family had even read his books. "He was the only thing we had to hold on to at that point," said Karjuan. "We had to find some way out of this. We had to trust somebody."
Sparks managed to get a thousand dollars to the stranded family via a friend in Little Rock. Jimmie Lee Williams cast her family's fate to the heavens, turning the truck east toward New Bern and a total stranger. "Mom has never taken us any place dangerous," said Karjuan. "She's never let anything bad happen to us. So if it was cool with her, it was all right with me."
The family arrived in New Bern with little more than the clothes on their backs. Sparks, who had just finished his eleventh novel, At First Sight, arranged for assistance and housing while Jimmie Lee -- a computer operator back in New Orleans -- sought work.
Additional aid came from The National Scholastic Sports Foundation. "We heard about what was happening and all of us worried about him," said Joy Kamani, associate director of the Nike Indoor and Outdoor meets. "When we finally got a phone call through to him, Karjuan and his family were in North Carolina and they had nothing."
Kamani and NSSF director Jim Spier spread the word about Karjuan's plight. They raised enough funds for a sizeable contribution to the Williamses. "I can't tell you the number of 'thank yous' we've heard from that family," said Kamani.
Karjuan, who achieved senior status through summer courses, enrolled at New Bern High School -- his third school of the year. He had started the fall semester at St. Augustine's and briefly attended Barbe High School in Lake Charles between hurricanes.
Karjuan's sister Jamie also enrolled at New Bern High, while Cheryse eventually returned to Louisiana to attend classes at McNeese State. Jimmie Lee was hired as a computer operator at a New Bern hospital. She intends to repay her debt to Nicholas Sparks. "We appreciate what he did to the fullest," said Karjuan. "It's not something that happens every day."
Williams put the turbulence and disruption of the fall behind him and returned to competition on January 28 at the Virginia Tech Invitational in Blacksburg. Running the 500m, he turned in jaw-dropping splits of 23.2, 35.0 and 49.8 for a time of 1:02.80. It was the fastest indoor prep mark since 1984 and the second-fastest all-time.
For good measure, he led off New Bern's winning foursome in the 4x400 with a 48.2 leg. "My coach back in New Orleans [Jackie Callendar] told me that no matter what happens, you can get through anything," said Williams. "So I just focused on my training and made it happen."
Williams, who stands 5-foot-11 1/2 inches tall and weighs between 171 and 175 pounds, turns 19 next July 5. The New Orleans native isn't sure which college he'll attend, but will decide by April. "I have some ideas," he said, "but nothing I'm settled down on yet."
While a track career is attractive, Williams won't place all his hopes in that basket. "Track's not permanent and I could get injured," he said. "I'd love to go pro, but it's not one of the things I'm betting on. If it happens, it happens."
What really appeals to Williams right now is a job in meteorology . . . and not just because recent weather conditions have had such an impact on his life. "No matter where you go, everybody knows the television meteorologists," he said. "I would really enjoy that. Maybe some day I could even hit the big time on the Weather Channel."
His summer plans this year include the North Carolina state meet, Nike Outdoor Nationals and the U.S. Junior Championships in Indianapolis. The Indianapolis event decides the American squad for the World Juniors in Beijing. "I'll be shooting for the USA team once again," Williams said.
Beijing is also the site of the 2008 Olympics, something Williams doesn't want to think about right now. "I love track and I love to go out and compete," he says. "I'd love to be there [at the Beijing Games], but at the same time, 2008??? Olympics??? I'm only at 1:50 right now!"
The future will be a lot clearer in the next year or so, Williams believes. "By the end of this summer," he said, "and by the end of my freshman year in college, I'll know if I'm ready for the Olympics."