British sprinter is a great role model – both on and off the track – as she races in the World Champs 200m
“Mummy, are you going to run fast?” Three-year-old Zuri Dos Santos looks up at Bianca Williams inquisitively. The track is his playground and he is in awe of the talent around him.
“I absolutely love bringing Zuri to the track with me,” says Williams, who describes his joy at learning to use blocks and how he cheers for her in training. “Children are great imitators, so give them something to imitate.”
A European and Commonwealth 4x100m gold medallist, the 29-year-old made her Great Britain and Northern Ireland debut at the European Under-20 Championships in 2011. She won 200m bronze at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and reached the semi-finals of the 200m at the 2017 World Championships in London.
Williams has long been an achiever but now, more than ever, she’s a role model too.
Zuri was born at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. It was an uncertain period of time for everyone, but it brought a unique set of challenges for Williams and her partner Ricardo Dos Santos, a Portuguese sprinter, as they balanced parenthood with elite sport and relative isolation.
“When I envisage having a baby, I envisage people coming round with lasagne and bringing round all these foods that I’m going to put in the freezer,” she laughs. “That never happened. It was tough.
“People didn’t really know how Covid was spreading at the time so they didn’t want to see the baby in case they had it and passed it on. It was hard in that sense, but then it was nice because we could just be a family of three.”
As Dos Santos continued to train for a soon-to-be-postponed Olympic Games, Williams and baby Zuri accompanied him to the track. She started walking around the oval with the pram but, after six weeks, she started to move more and to do low impact running drills. “All of a sudden I was doing 200s,” she says.
She began to work with Linford Christie – already coach to Dos Santos – and benefited from the family set-up as her gradual reintroduction to athlete life began. “It just made sense for us both to be in the same place with the baby,” says the Thames Valley athlete.
“Looking back, I could have taken more time [to get back into it], but there’s no right or wrong way. I guess it was just harder because I couldn’t get the support that I really and truly needed. Everything was done over Zoom and I couldn’t see a physio or a pelvic floor specialist. It was hard.
“Linford has been great. I wasn’t sure how it would work – I was worried about going into his group because it had worked so well with Lloyd (Cowan) – but seeing Zuri with Linford, they have the best relationship, they have the most perfect bond. It works really, really well and I can’t imagine being anywhere else. It just feels like home.”
Williams gradually returned to full fitness and in 2022 competed at the European Championships and Commonwealth Games. She was the GB & NI captain for June’s European Team Championships and, in July, she finished second in the 200m at the UK Athletics Championships in 22.59 – her second-fastest 200m ever and quickest since 2014 – to secure her place on the British team for the World Athletics Championships in Budapest. She finished third in the 100m in 11.29, which was also a season’s best performance.
Athletes are often considered as examples to follow. Their stories of success, of overcoming adversity or simply of hard work and perseverance are reinforced in a bid to elevate their profiles above those of modern-day social media stars.
Williams is a role model regardless of medals and motherhood, but her perception of such a position has changed drastically since March 2020.
“Now I’m a mum, everything is different,” she admits. “[Children] really look up to you, they repeat what you say, they repeat what you do, so I definitely want to be the best person for Zuri to look up to and to be a good role model for other young girls to look up to and think: ‘Wow, she’s done this, she’s done that, she can do anything’.
“Even for Zuri, I feel like coming back from pregnancy and being the best I can be shows him that anything is possible, that he can do anything if he puts his mind to it and works hard.”
However, she adds that the UK can be a “horrible” and “unpredictable” place to grow up, especially for a young Black boy.
“God forbid anything would happen, but the thought of him walking home after a night out at 17 or 18, it’s just troubling and I shouldn’t have to fear for my son’s life like that,” she says.
It’s a feeling that no parent should have to endure, but one that’s been magnified by the trauma of being stopped by police alongside her partner and her then-three-month-old baby in July 2020.
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Footage of the incident, in which the couple were handcuffed and searched, was widely shared on social media and, following an investigation, it was confirmed that five Metropolitan Police officers would face a gross-misconduct hearing.
Throughout the case Williams has acted with remarkable dignity and maturity. She says she responded in the way she did because she wants the world to be a better place for Zuri than it has been for her.
Change takes time, even more so if it’s institutionalised or engrained within communities, but are things better than they were three years ago?
“I want to say yes, but no,” says Williams. “It’s just the harsh reality of being a Black person in the UK. It’s sad that we had to go through it, but I’m glad we had to go through it.
“Ricardo says to me that sometimes you have to crawl before you can walk, and I feel like we had to be the people that crawled, so that hopefully when our hearing is done and everything is settled, then other people can walk.”
She adds: “It’s a shame that people don’t feel safe. I don’t feel safe any more. Whenever I see a police car my anxiety just shoots through the roof. I’m always looking around, thinking: ‘Are they behind me, are they going to stop me, are they going to look in the car?’.
“It’s awful, but that’s just how it is. Something has to be done, something has to be put in place for there to be real change.
“It’s so easy for people to say they want to make change, but what are they really going to do to actually make that change happen?”
Sport, at least, has brought Williams great happiness. Until recently she worked in recruitment to help fund her athletics career, but she now coaches young tennis players. “I’ve always said if you’re happy, then you’re going to run fast,” she says. “I love the sport now. I feel like having a baby has really changed my outlook in sport overall. It is my priority, but it’s not my everything.
“Sport is a wonderful place. But it’s hard, and it can be really crappy. I’ve had years when I’ve not run well and I’ve had no support and you just second guess yourself, you second guess everything and everybody, but when you have your highs, it’s beautiful, it’s life-changing, it’s magical, and I really want Zuri to experience the magic, as well as the heartbreak, because the heartbreak really does define you as a person.
“I always believe that everything happens for a reason. You don’t always know what that reason is at that moment, but you can overcome the heartbreak.”
For Zuri, the magic already exists. Is his mummy going to run fast? Yes, of course she is. To him, she’s the fastest mum in the world. He jumps in with a follow-up before she gets the chance to respond: “I’m going to run fast,” he grins.
His words are more than just those of an adoring son. They represent the power she holds and the influence she has. This is imitation of the best kind. Williams is a positive role model, and she deserves success.
» This feature first appeared in the August issue of AW magazine, which you can buy here