Air Force mechanic aims to soar in Ironman World Championships
The Modesto Bee
On his street, on the campus of his alma mater, in his hometown, "Bad Brad" is remembered fondly as the ultimate team player.
A kid with fair athletic talent, formidable heart and an overwhelming sense of team.
"By far, not extraordinary," said Brad Williams, whose childhood nickname evokes fear where none should exist.
Williams was 6-foot-1 with a passion for basketball and football that never did translate into many press clippings. Instead, he settled for attaboys and floor burns.
He was a third-stringer on the Riverbank Bruins basketball team and a part-time starter for a floundering football program.
"He was the kind of guy that did whatever the team needed, whether it was diving for a loose ball, getting a tough rebound or taking a charge," Riverbank boys basketball coach Jeff Jennings said in an e-mail to The Bee. "He was a glue guy for us who did a lot of the dirty work that usually goes unnoticed."
Look at him now.
From those uninspiring high school credentials has risen a superathlete, a name that has commanded attention around the globe.
"Bad Brad" is, well, a badass. More specifically, he's one of the Air Force's top male endurance athletes and he'll represent his branch at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, this week.
The Kona Ironman, set for Saturday, is a test of an athlete's ability to swim (2.4 miles), bike (112 miles) and run (26.2 miles) over a 140.6-mile course. Like the Boston Marathon, the Kona Ironman prides itself on its exclusivity. Athletes must qualify to compete.
The 2004 Riverbank High grad, now stationed in South Korea, will compete in the Military Division against representatives from the other branches. Marine Rob Hilton is the defending champion in the category and has served as Williams' White Rabbit since July, when Williams was hand-picked by the Air Force to travel to Kona.
"This year, representing the Air Force, it's given me a new outlook. I'm not racing for myself. I'm there racing for our service, racing against other branches and hopefully making a name for the Air Force," said Williams.
"I have high goals and want to win, but we have a tough field of other military athletes there."
'I got sucked in'
Williams' ambitions aren't far-flung. He qualified for last year's Kona Ironman and shattered his goal of a sub-10-hour finish, crossing the line in 9 hours, 36 minutes, 39 seconds.
Some perspective on that finish:
It came just four years after he took up endurance sports. What began as a diversion from the party scene that surrounds Osan Air Base, where he's stationed, and a way to lose 15 pounds, morphed into a passion. "I got sucked in," he said.
His time placed him in the top 10 percent of all amateur competitors.
He placed 225th overall out of 1,855 entrants. He was the 209th male to cross the finish line, and among the 94 men ages 24 to 29, he was 32nd.
He was the second military finisher, trailing Hilton (9:19) by roughly 17 minutes.
His splits: 1:04:24 in the swim; 5:14:51 in the bike; and 3:11:16 in the run.
"I went in wanting to beat 10 hours, and we kind of shattered those expectations," Williams said.
Since then, he's worked to get faster, sharper, more efficient in the triathlon, juggling his responsibilities as an aircraft mechanic on the air base with the demands of a 20-plus-hour-a-week training schedule.
"I have been working with Brad for nearly three years, and in that time, Brad's work ethic, discipline and time-management skills are unprecedented," said Scott DeFilippis, his triathlon coach. "There were times in which Brad was taking classes to finish his degree, working full time defending our nation and training for Ironman.
"I would get these notes from him saying he was off to bed as it was like 2 a.m. and he just got done with an indoor trainer ride. … I thought he was nuts, but that is the kind of person that qualifies for the Hawaii Ironman."
Focus on cycling
Training for next month's Ironman began in December, and the first four months were focused on the bike. Normally a strong cyclist, Williams says he was served a "reality check" in that discipline in Kona.
"I should be biking a lot stronger than 560th," he said of his position in that portion of the race. "That was a little humbling. That's why I focused on the bike and wanted to make improvements in that area."
So under the tutelage of Zach Garrett, a member of the Air Force's elite cycling team, Williams rode.
He raced domestically at Atwater's Big Creek Lumber Criterium and at events in Lodi, Davis, Florida and Oregon. He raced internationally, completing three of the eight days of the Tour of Korea.
Since December, 72 percent of his training has been on the bike, compared with 16.2 on foot and 11 in the water. The formula, he and DeFilippis hope, results in a Military Division championship and personal record.
"I'm not surprised by how well he's doing now," Jennings said, "because in that sport, it's all about heart, courage and work ethic, which are the things that Brad has abundantly. What he lacked in athleticism, he more than makes up for with his effort and toughness."
Still a glue guy
The ol' ball coach will be happy to learn that time and distance haven't changed Williams' soul, either.
He's still a glue guy, even in a sport that is largely individualized.
Williams has joined forces with Team Red, White and Blue, an organization that aims to enrich the lives of wounded veterans and their families.
Its logo adorns Williams' race suits and he uses social-media platforms to generate support and awareness for veterans suffering physically and mentally.
In time, he says, he'll continue the campaign stateside, beginning with the communities in and around Stanislaus County. Until then, he'll race for these wounded warriors.
"It's something I take a lot of pride in," Williams said. "It means a lot more to be racing for something bigger than yourself."
That doesn't surprise those in his hometown, those cheering him from afar.
Surmised Riverbank High athletic director Jason Herrera, who grew up a few houses down from "Bad Brad": "He was a hard worker and would do whatever was asked of him to help his team."
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