AUBURN – The Williams family, Troy, Sr., Andrea, Tierra, Taj’a and Tamia, embrace each other in a hug. Troy, Sr. and Andrea’s oldest daughter, Tierra, says “I love you guys. Thank you for coming.”
Tierra, one of six children, just finished delivering a half-hour long emotional speech about her past and shared a message of hope and courage to around 40 people at Rural Impact Hub’s monthly speaker series in downtown Auburn.
Six years ago, you may not have seen the Williams family in a group hug or heard the words “I love you.”
Tierra Williams graduated from Auburn High School in 2013. She was a standout jumper and sprinter for the Bulldogs, winning state gold medals her sophomore, junior and senior seasons.
She earned a full-ride scholarship to the University of Nebraska – Lincoln where she became a Big Ten Champion long jumper and triple jumper in indoor and outdoor track and field. She earned all-american status and was named the Nebraska Student-Athlete of the Year for the 2016-2017. Williams also qualified for the Olympic trials.
However, Williams had to walk a long, dark path to find her success.
Williams was born and raised in what is considered a dangerous part of New Orleans, Louisiana. Her, her sisters and their friends were forced to be home before the street lights came on. Gun shots could be heard frequently during the night.
Education was limited and Williams suffered, struggling in areas of math, reading and writing. Her mother, Andrea, says she always wanted to get out of New Orleans, to escape the violence, get a better education and help her children avoid the life she had growing up just a few blocks off of Bourbon Street.
In the most inconvenient way, Andrea’s wish began to take shape. The family was displaced by one of the most devastating hurricanes to hit the continental United States: Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.
With her family by her side, Andrea went to a local Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to learn how they could be helped and evacuated from Louisiana. Her and her husband, Troy, Sr., overheard a conversation of someone turning down a chance to escape the destruction and go live in Auburn, Neb. Andrea wanted the first ticket out of there, so Nebraska it was.
Tierra says it was a culture shock when they landed in Omaha and began their one hour, 13 minute trek south to Auburn. It was flat, there was a lot of corn and people were friendly. They enjoyed their first Nebraska Cornhuskers football game thanks to their new neighbor. They had carolers sing to them at Christmas for the first time ever.
Williams says the biggest challenge she overcame moving to a new state was trying to figure out where she fit-in, coming from a town with a strong African-American presence in Louisiana to a town primarily Caucasian in Nebraska.
“Identity of kind of feeling split of who I was, who I wanted to be and who I was told I should be,” Williams said. “I overcame it by just being myself. I found when I went to UNL that everyone liked me for me. I didn’t have to be the black girl, the white girl or the whatever girl. All I had to do was be myself and I made friends.”
During Williams’ junior year at Auburn, she was forced to move in with a friend, where she slept on the floor. Her dad was suffering from alcoholism.
When she arrived at UNL, she became unfocused on her goals, gained weight and suffered leg injuries. While her grades never really suffered, she entered into an unhealthy relationship and became depressed during her first two years at the school. She even tried to take her own life.
“Overcoming those, it took hitting rock bottom, being honest with myself, and admitting that I wasn’t perfect,” according to Williams. “I was constantly trying to be perfect, constantly wanting to win and was afraid to fail. Not letting the failure run my life, but living through hope and joy.”
Williams got back on track with her athletic goals and found faith in God. She added triple jump to the list of her events as a Husker. She said, “if someone wanted to beat me, they were going to have to give their life, because I was willing to.”
She dedicated her life to a sport her mother forced her to do while at Auburn High School. She went from not wanting to run for ten minutes and struggling in the classroom, to a conference champion and an academic all-Big Ten team member in 2015 and 2016 at NU. She was also a Big Ten Distinguished Scholar.
Williams graduated with a degree in Child Youth and Family Development at UNL in December and wants to attend graduate school. She is also training to compete for a spot on the 2020 U.S. Olympic team.
She continues to repair relationships she lost along the way, including with her family. On Monday, her dad (now sober) may have had the biggest smile in the room.