July 19, 2012
by Jeremy Hawkes, ASU Media Relations
When she first experienced the pomp and circumstance involved in the opening ceremonies at the Olympic Games, Alison Williamson was a starry-eyed young adult marching through Estadi Olímpic de Montjuïc in Barcelona alongside British sports legends she had only every seen on “the telly”.
Twenty years down the road, the Arizona State University alumni will take that march for the sixth time as the now-40-year-old archer will represent her country and the host nation as one of the longest-tenured Olympians in the history of the Games.
“I’m just really grateful for the opportunity,” Williamson said prior to taking part in a competition in Ogden, Utah in June. “For a lot of athletes, an injury can stop them completely and I’ve been fortunate to be healthy and have the opportunities and chances that I have had.”
While Williamson has had the advantage of participating in a sport that allows for sustained longevity as far as careers are concerned, the native of Melton Mowbray is crossing into grounds few have seen in their lives – no matter what the sport.
Since 1896, only 23 women in the history of the Olympic games (summer or winter) had competed in six or more Olympics at the conclusion of the 2010 Vancouver Games. While not all rosters are set for the 2012 Games in London, Williamson looks primed to be one of the first 30 women to ever achieve the feat.
“I think when it comes down to it, it’s just practice. I practice a lot,” Williamson explained when asked how she has been able to maintain the highest level of competition. “I don’t mind putting in the time to practice and the time in the gymnasium and the technical work when I have to.”
That work ethic began at a very young age for Williamson, who explained that archery was quite literally part of her family tradition. Williamson’s parents were both archers and founders of a local archery club during her youth. Williamson first picked up a bow and arrow at six years old and knew pretty early on it was something she wished to pursue.
“My family was pretty keen on sports and archery and we always encourage family members to try it,” Williamson said. “As a kid, you always dream of going to the Olympics and competing and after I made the Great British junior team when I was 14, I realized that this was what I wanted to stick with.”
From there, it wasn’t long at all before Williamson’s first interaction with Arizona State took place. During one of her lessons in Britain – a Personal, Social and Health (PSHE) course – she was assigned to write a letter to a potential employer or university she might be interested in and inquire as to the steps she should begin to get there.
At the time, Williamson was a big fan of 1988 gold medalist Jay Barrs and after discovering he attended school at ASU, she reached out to then-head coach Sheri Rhodes to ask about coming to ASU and the reply wasn’t quite what she expected.
“’You’re fifteen years old, you’re too young’, she said.” Williamson remembers. “She said that we could talk about it when I was older.”
A couple years later, the fates obliged and Rhodes ran into Williamson at the European Championships in Spain and inquired as to whether Williamson was still interested. Shortly after the competition, Rhodes rang Williamson up and told her she had a scholarship available for the following season and asked if she’d take it.
Williamson didn’t wait to hang up before accepting the offer.
At the time, Arizona State was one of the few schools in the country offering scholarships for archery. The effects showed in the program’s results as the men’s, women’s and mixed squads squads combined over the years for over 50 national championships and produced eight Olympians in the process. In fact, Rhodes herself was the American coach at the 1988 Seoul Games.
The environment was right and it didn’t take Williamson long to make her mark, earning All-America honors for the first time as a sophomore and helping the team to an NCAA Championship in the process during the 1992-93 campaign.
However, the decision was made shortly afterward to drop the archery teams as varsity sports. Being over 5,000 miles from home and having the program she came to the United States for dropped could have been extremely disheartening for Williamson, but she didn’t let that stop her.
“My commitment was definitely to finish my degree but, regardless, I had to maintain a certain level of performance,” she said. “And even though we didn’t have a head coach any more, we had to manage and we did.”
The members of the squad and Williamson all continued to practice and make use of the range and Williamson would inevitably go on to be the collegiate national champion in 1995 while also earning her degree in social work the same year.
“When I look back on it, I was grateful for the opportunity to come there and glad I got the opportunity,” Williamson said. “Coming to ASU really changed by approach as the sport was still quite amateur in Britain. Being exposed to the collegiate environment, I was exposed to a whole new level of professionalism.”
Williamson changed her approach to training following her stint at Arizona State, realizing she needed a sport team behind her if she was going to continue to improve while also increasing her own level of responsibility when it came to her personal training.
“It taught me to be a manager of my own training program,” she said. “With this sport, you can’t just give 80 percent.”
Even with that being said, Williamson notes that she “hasn’t just trained for the last 20 years.” Williamson typically takes two years after each Olympiad to taper and work while only training part-time. Williamson is a certified teacher and spent some of those years teaching at a primary school while she also earns funds from the UK Lottery. When her archery career is through, Williamson said that she thinks she will get back into teaching.
For now though, her sights are set on London as she tries to earn her second Olympic medal after a bronze medal performance at the 2004 Games in Athens. And having the Olympics in her home country just adds that much more excitement to the mix.
“The country is really starting to get the Olympic fever, I think,” she said. “When the torch showed up, there have been hundreds and thousands more people gathering to see it than expected.”
As if competing in her sixth Olympics in her home country wasn’t enough to be excited about, Williamson’s name is among the most popular being tossed around right now as far as bearing the British flag at the Opening Ceremonies when her country’s delegation files in last during the iconic procession.
While Williamson was eager and ready to answer all questions posed to her, when asked what that particular notion meant to her, she found herself speechless.
“To even be mentioned as a potential flagbearer is humbling. It would be a complete honor,” she said. “Obviously there are so many other athletes around that are equally or more appropriate. It’s hard to get my head around.”
No matter the result of Williamson’s sixth Olympic appearance, she has established herself as one of the most historical of Arizona State’s numerous ties to the London Games and few others can top her commitment to her passion.
Williamson is slated to compete in the individual competition beginning Friday, July 27, and will join her fellow countrymen on Sunday, July 29 for the team competition.
For continued coverage of Arizona State at the 2012 Olympic Games, be sure to follow along at www.TheSunDevils.com. Also be sure to follow Alison through her journey by checking out her Twitter account @archeryalison.