NEW PORT RICHEY — Kelli Williams' classmates at Trinity Elementary and Seven Springs Middle School recognized her running potential long before she did.
Ditch the equestrian stuff, they'd suggest in not so many words. Maximize the potential in your own astounding gallop.
"I would play flag football with the guys and play little games where you'd run," Williams recalled. "And everybody would say, 'You're so fast, why don't you run track?' "
So last spring, as a Mitchell freshman, Williams gave in. With no real athletic experience outside 10 years of competitive English horseback riding, the former Army brat went out for the Mustangs track team. By all indications, it was a lark.
Today, it's her life.
Williams, who would have cackled at the notion of running a 5-kilometer race as recently as January, has evolved into a district cross country champion. At Starkey Wilderness Park last weekend, she stunned a solid field to win the Class 4A-4 title (in 20 minutes, 34 seconds) and earn a trip to Saturday's Region 2 meet in Winter Haven.
A week before, she set a personal best (19:46) to place second at the Sunshine Athletic Conference championships.
"I have," Williams says when asked if she has surprised herself. "I really have because I didn't think I was going to be so good at running, but it's pretty much my life. I love it."
Mustangs coach Jeff Leavey recognized Williams' promise during track season. He tried her in several events before whittling her focus to the 400 meters.
She became a region qualifier in the 400 and 4x400, helping that relay team achieve a school record.
"I didn't discover anything; it's just in her," said Leavey, a wildly successful prep track and cross country coach in Illinois before relocating to Trinity four years ago. "You can't make chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what. She had the chicken in her."
Saturday, on a Polk Community College course featuring mostly clay paths, Williams could flourish again. For one, the course will be much faster than the sugary sand and grass she navigated at districts. Additionally, none of the runners she'll face eclipsed her personal-best time in district competition last week.
And none is likely to match her prerace sustenance. The night before a race, Williams eats a sweet potato loaded with brown sugar, drinks a root beer and hits the sack by 9:30. On race morning, she eats a pear.
Blend the ingredients, you've got the proverbial chicken salad.
"Always at the end of a race," Williams said, "I have the energy to finish hard."