ATHENS, Greece -- Winning the 100 meters at the Olympics isn't simply a tradition carried on by generations of American women sprinters, it's an exercise in domination. Marion Jones. Gail Devers -- twice. Florence Griffith Joyner. Evelyn Ashford. The U.S. women had captured the past five gold medals in the event and eight of the past 12.
So imagine the surprise when a set of long legs belonging to 5-foot-8 Belarusian Yulia Nesterenko started swallowing up little Lauryn Williams, the 5-foot-3 American who was leading the pack with 30 meters to go Saturday night.
It wasn't Williams' fault. Nesterenko had come out of nowhere.
No one had heard of her before Friday's two preliminary-round heats when Nesterenko burned the field with the fastest times -- 10.94, a national record, and 10.99. She hadn't competed in any high-profile international events and the only time any Americans faced her was in the 4x100 at the 2003 World Championships in Paris. Nesterenko's team finished seventh. She spent most of this season competing in European meets, winning three Super Grand Prix. Yet, her best time of 11.06 was slower than the season best of 10.97 posted by Williams.
"All I knew about her is that she ran 10.9s in the prelims," quipped U.S. sprinter LaTasha Colander, who finished eighth with an 11.18. "I know she ran a few European races, but she didn't have trials so she was able to stay fresh and come out here rolling."
After Nesterenko set another national record Saturday in the semifinals -- a 10.92 -- the question became which was likelier to happen, Nesterenko slowing down in the final or Williams running a personal best.
Williams did run a personal best -- a 10.96. Problem was Nesterenko didn't slow down and ran a 10.93.
It was a first time in a long time that Williams was caught from behind. She burst out of the blocks like she did in her second heat. She could see Jamaica's Veronica Campbell to her left in Lane 3. She couldn't see Nesterenko two lanes to her right in Lane 6 until it was too late.
"The only thing I regret about the race is I wish she would have been next to me," Williams said. "I don't know if the outcome would have been different, but I think it would have pushed me a little bit more."
Nesterenko, 25, said her sudden development was due to her husband and herself moving out of her parents' house and new training methods developed by her coach. The move, she said, was a matter of convenience. The methods?
"We added new elements of weightlifting," she said through an interpreter. "I can't go into great details about my training."
She said she ran faster, swam faster and jumped higher than the boys she grew up with, but she fell in love with sprinting because it's the most exciting and beautiful sport. Winning the 100 meters at the Golden League in Rome gave her a confidence boost, she said, and it made her realize she could win the Olympics.
Williams got a confidence boost, too, with a silver medal in her first Olympics. Only 20, Williams said she's looking forward to her 21st birthday on Sept. 11 as well as the Beijing Games in 2008.
"I'm definitely thinking about Beijing," Williams said. "I want that gold medal now. I heard it's only gold plated and the silver is all silver, so maybe mine's worth a little bit more. But I still think I'd rather have the gold medal the next time around."
If only to carry on the tradition.