Fire and ice drive Rio dream
FOR Sharni Williams, the fire in her belly was the antidote to the ice-cold conditions she would encounter every morning on her quest for Olympic immortality.
Before women’s rugby sevens went professional, the Canberra-based Australian captain would launch each day with a work-out at 5.30am, before starting her day job as a mechanic. It was then more training in the evening with her days finishing at 10.30pm.
It could all be worth it, however, with the Aussie women ranked No.1 in the world and favourite to claim gold in Rio in August.
“Fire and ice,” Williams tells Australian Regional Media. “Ice is for Arctic composure and fire is having that fire in the belly, to go out there and give everything.
“It was very draining.
“But I think the biggest thing for me is the Australian anthem – standing out there with the girls and singing loud and proud for my country.
“It’s something you cannot take away from me. I’d say that to myself every time I’d get up and go to work and feel crap or I didn’t want to do it.
“It became an addiction after that.”
It was that attitude that also enabled the 28-year-old to return from a horror knee injury in time for the final round of the 2015-16 World Sevens series in Clermont-Ferrand, France, in late May.
The Aussies lost the final 29-19 to Canada but finished 14 competition points clear of New Zealand in the overall standings.
“It (the knee injury) happened on the first day of the series in Dubai against England,” Williams recalled.
“I dislocated my patella and tore the ligament off the bone. It left a 10cm scar on my right knee.
“I carried the ball into three girls and got twisted. I knew something wasn’t right. They wanted me to go back on but I wasn’t up to it.
“I’ve got a bit of mongrel and I’ll play through anything but that wasn’t the best.”
So Williams went back to her old slogan of “fire and ice” – preached by her national coach Tim Walsh – to get her through the testing six-month recovery process.
“I couldn’t run for a while. But I’ve come out the other side and I’m a better person and athlete,” she said.
“It’s taken me a while to get the power back in my leg, but I’ve got some amazing people around me with amazing knowledge.”
Walsh is one of those people, and together with co-captain Shannon Parry, the three promote a “no idiots” policy in the Australian set-up.
“We’ve got a slogan that we live by, which is ‘Roar’,” Williams said.
“We’ve got the Katy Perry song we play and we’ve got the Zac Brown Band Chicken Fried song we sing before every match.
“You could be the best player in Australia but if your attitude doesn’t fit then sorry, you’re not welcome.”
Williams’ impressive attitude was honed growing up in the small country town of Batlow, famous for its apple-growers, in southern New South Wales.
“I did a lot of work like irrigation, picked apples, and I loved it,” she said.
“The community got behind me.
“It makes you feel wanted and loved, and it’s kept me grounded.”
As with most country towns, a large number of Batlow residents love their sport.
“I used to go and watch the Batlow Bears rugby league team play and run the sand out and wish that I could play along with the boys,” Williams said.
“I started playing hockey and that was where I thought my career was going.
“I put everything into hockey but at 20 I thought I need a change and one of my mates said ‘come and play rugby’.”
Williams went on to represent her country in union soon after crossing over.
“I played four matches in the ACT, made the national team and got picked for the Wallaroos (15-a-side team) the next year against New Zealand. That was a very quick transition,” she said.
“I think it was just meant to be. From such a young age I used to watch Friday night footy with my dad.”
Following a chance meeting with her Hockeyroos idol Alyson Annan after winning the chance to be an Olympic flame escort runner in Sydney before the 2004 Athens Games, becoming an Olympian was also meant to be for Williams.
“I watched Alyson at the 2000 Olympics when she scored the goal for the gold medal,” she said.
“I just loved the way she played – she was ruthless and had an energy that changed the whole game.
“I wanted to be like that.
“That (being an Olympic flame escort) was awesome.
“I got to my third person and it was Alyson Annan. It was a surreal feeling and I cried.”
Williams is now a huge chance to win a gold medal of her own in Rio.
She is the co-captain of a champion outfit that includes World Sevens Dream Team selections Parry, Emma Tonegato and Charlotte Caslick.
And Williams does not want her own rugby dream to finish after the Rio Olympics.
She’s got a five-point plan to play in the 15-a-side World Cup in Dublin in 2017, the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast in 2018, the Sevens World Cup in San Francisco in 2018 and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
She’d also like to coach an all-women’s rugby school at some stage.
“Rugby’s given me so much, not just being able to represent my country,” she said.
“I was never a big talker. I used to be this shy kid that wouldn’t say too much.
“But now I know who I am and I stand up for what I believe in.
“I counted my blessings and look what happened.”
RIO SEVENS DRAW
MEN – Pool A: Fiji, USA, Argentina, Brazil; Pool B: South Africa, Australia, France, Spain; Pool C: New Zealand, Great Britain, Kenya, Japan.
WOMEN – Pool A: Australia, USA, Fiji, Colombia; Pool B: New Zealand, France, Spain, Kenya; Pool C: Canada, Great Britain, Brazil, Japan.