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Former USC standout right on track

Tiffany Ross-Williams
Tiffany Ross-Williams

Tiffany Ross-Williams will be surrounded by family when she makes her Olympic debut, with one notable exception.

Ross-Williams, the former South Carolina standout who won the 400-meter hurdles at the U.S. track and field trials, brought a slew of family members from her native Miami to Beijing, including her husband, daughter, mother, grandmother and several uncles and cousins.

But Karl Ross will be absent, as he has been for most of his daughter’s 25 years.

In and out of Florida prisons since 1987 for a variety of drug and burglary offenses, Karl Ross was returned to prison in July for failing to report to his parole officer, according to a spokeswoman with the Florida Dept. of Corrections.

The 46-year-old Ross is currently detained at the Calhoun Correctional Institution in Blountstown, Fla. His release date has not been determined.

“He’s always been in jail all my life, so I’ve never really had a relationship with him,” Ross-Williams said.

Fortunately for Ross-Williams, she had a strong support system and a couple of female role models who instilled in her a work ethic that Ross-Williams has parlayed into a successful track career.

Four years after missing the 2004 trials following the birth of her daughter, Samya, Ross-Williams has a good chance to medal in the intermediate hurdles. She views her Olympics experience as a reward to the family members who stepped in to fill the void left by her father.

“I’m really, really excited because I worked so hard and there’s been so many people that supported me,” she said.

Ross-Williams’ network of supporters stretches from south Florida to lower Richland County, where the family of her husband, Steven Williams, lives. When Ross-Williams races in Europe, as she did for several weeks leading to the Olympics, relatives on both sides of the family take turns caring for Samya.

Ross-Williams, who missed her junior year while pregnant with Samya, knows her daughter is in good hands while she is gone.

Tina Dupree, Ross-Williams’ maternal grandmother, worked her way up from a restaurant employee at Church’s Chicken to become the company’s third highest-ranking official before switching to the field of motivational speaking.

Louise Smith, Ross-Williams’ mother, maintained two jobs while raising six children and now works for a nonprofit organization founded by Dupree that provides information on Florida’s public school options.

So it surprised no one in her family when Ross-Williams spent her final year at USC juggling motherhood with a part-time job, full class schedule and rigorous training regimen.

“She is the queen of multitasking, I can tell you that,” said Williams, who doubles as his wife’s agent.

Thanks to a Reebok sponsorship, Ross-Williams does not need a second job. But she has not slacked off in her training.

Brooks Johnson, who has coached Ross-Williams since April when she relocated to the Orlando, Fla., area, was floored by the way the 5-foot-2 hurdler attacked the workouts.

Johnson, the relays coach for the U.S. Olympic team, builds 10-minute recovery periods into his interval workouts. But he would look up to find Ross-Williams to resuming her workout after 3- to 5-minute breaks.

“She has a prodigious and very impressive work ethic,” Johnson said. “Her ability to train — qualitatively and quantitatively — is basically off the chart.”

Ross-Williams said Johnson has had to calm her down.

“I’ve always been a really, really hard worker. Whatever I do, I try to give it 110 percent,” she said. “I try to go above and beyond. That’s just what I believe in — that hard work pays off.”

Ross-Williams had the fastest 400-meter hurdle time (53.28 seconds) in the world last year and ran 54.03 at the trials to make her first Olympics.

She is a little disappointed the U.S. team’s training camp in Dalian, China, will prevent her from attending the opening ceremonies. But she hopes to be at the closing ceremonies with a medal around her neck.

“That was something I was looking forward to,” she said. “But the big picture is to medal and bring back a medal for my country.”

Ross-Williams dedicated her trials win to her ailing paternal grandparents, Clifford and Cliffornia Ross, who drove their granddaughter to youth track meets and helped her out financially while her father was locked up.

“They would sit out at track meets all day long and do whatever it took just to be supportive of her,” said Smith, Ross-Williams’ mother. “They were the ones who instilled that in her, of setting a goal for the Olympics and working towards that.”

So Ross-Williams would love nothing more than to return to Miami with a medal to show off to her grandparents — and perhaps one day, her father.

“Hopefully he can get it together because he’s never seen me run. I want him to be able to see me run and see what he’s missing,” Ross-Williams said. “Hopefully, he can spend the time with Samya that he didn’t get to spend with me.”

Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.