Bryce Williams didn’t think it was a serious injury at first.
The Penn State jumper’s knee was a little swollen before the start of last season, so he figured a couple days of ice and rest would do the trick. Then his phone buzzed with the bad news while he was helping his parents move: The trainer told him it was a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
“That hit me hard,” the State College grad said. “I was going to be out for the year.”
A long nine months of recovery — filled with long days rehabbing — resulted in a second chance for the Little Lion turned Nittany Lion.
Never miss a local story.
The now-healthy junior is consistently breaking the 50-foot mark in the triple jump and hopes to give his team a few points this weekend as Penn State hosts the Big Ten championships from Friday through Sunday at its new-and-improved track facility.
Williams was once a standout for the Little Lions, finishing third at the PIAA championships as a senior and setting the District 6 record before that with a leap of 48 feet, 7 1/2 inches. He also was the district long-jump champ and finished ninth in that event at the state meet.
He continued to make big leaps as a college freshman, including hitting the 50-foot mark for the first time in a meet at Michigan State. He qualified for the NCAA East Regionals and finished 39th with a distance of 48-4 1/2 at the end of the spring of 2015.
But during a training session over the Christmas break, near the end of 2015, he suffered the torn ACL — a bit of a rarity for a straight-line runner. Next came the rehab. Lots and lots of rehab, filled with plenty of lifting and stretching.
“Doing the same thing every day for months,” he said, groaning.
But he still attended practices and meets and hung out with his teammates. And they, in turn, did their best to keep his spirits up.
“When you have an ACL tear it’s easy to get down, easy to get frustrated and just kind of give up,” said sprinter Xavier Smith, Williams’ roommate. “But he’s had the right mindset through all the training — in the weight room lifting, he’s been on the bike, he’s been recovering, he’s been icing, all the stuff that you need to do.”
The other tricky part was navigating the Penn State campus in the dead of winter with a scooter while his leg was in a brace.
“I had to keep my head down and hope I didn’t hit anyone,” Williams added.
The transition from scooter to full speed was a long one. But, now that Williams has returned to form, he’s been consistently leaving a mark on Penn State’s track and field team — much to the pleasure of coach John Gondak.
A 50-foot leap was once a nearly unreachable milestone. Now, it’s a safety mark.
“He’s been a phenomenal competitor this year,” Gondak said. “The thing that excites me the most about what Bryce has been doing is that he’s been very consistent. Sometimes as an athlete, you have a big jump here, then the next couple meets you’re struggling, jumping two or three feet less. Bryce has been very consistent week in and week out.”
His career best came at the end of April at the Penn Relays. He delivered a 52-foot leap to finish third in the championship section and moved to No. 6 on Penn State’s all-time list in the event.
Having competed at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field before both as a Little Lion and a Nittany Lion freshman helped him feel comfortable.
“I love that place,” he said. “My parents are from Philly, all my family’s from Philly, so I had a great section of fans cheering me on. I wanted to do something special for them there too.”
Williams will be competing in just one event this weekend — despite success in other jumps, such as the long jump with a personal best of 23-8 — but he should still be able to show the home crowd how far he’s come in just one season.
He’s already a better triple jumper than he was before his injury. But that doesn’t mean he’s settling, either.
“It feels good to be at that high level of competition,” Williams said. “I want to do more. I’m never satisfied.”
2017 Big Ten Outdoor Track and Field Championships
When: All day from Friday to Sunday
Where: Multi-Sport Indoor Facility
Cost: General admission is $20, although the first 50 students get in free with a valid student ID