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NJ Daily / PEOPLE

Golden Girl

Taking the plunge: Williams, a Paralympics swimmer from Australia, still feels like a tourist in Washington.(Chet Susslin)

November 15, 2012

The cheers from the stadium crowd seemed to reach up to the heavens. Australian swimmer Annabelle Williams stood poised on the pool’s edge as her teammate raced toward her in the water. As she prepared to dive in, the noise of the crowd swelled louder as Great Britain pulled ahead in the relay. Williams recalls thinking, “I can’t wait to dive into the pool so I can concentrate. It’s almost suffocating.” 

Williams and her fellow Australian team members took gold that day in August in the 4x100 meter medley relay at the 2012 London Paralympics. 

Williams had only a few days to relish the victory at her home in Sydney, however, before she had to fly across the world to begin an internship in Washington with the Perennial Strategy Group lobbying firm. The government-affairs and public-relations internship fulfills a credit she needs to complete her international-relations major at Bond University on Australia’s Gold Coast. She helps provide advice and counsel to Perennial’s clients, which range from Fortune 500 companies to nonprofit organizations. The 24-year-old is also studying law as part of her undergraduate degree, and she already has a job lined up at a corporate law firm in Australia when she graduates in February. 

 

Williams says it will be hard to leave her job at Perennial and end her stay in Washington. “I might nail myself to the desk,” she says. Williams began her internship in late September, but she still acts like a tourist at times. “I think I’ve taken a photograph of the White House every morning and night as I’ve walked to and from work,” she says, “because I’m still not over the fact that I work so close.”

Williams might be the only Perennial intern who has to fact-check her own Wikipedia page. She received calls from friends who were surprised to learn from her entry that she is an amputee. The page has since been updated for accuracy, but occasionally the Aussie is happy to indulge others by telling outrageous stories about a shark attack, rather than the real reason that she has no left hand and forearm: a congenital limb deficiency. Her Wikipedia entry also says that she was cast as a stunt double for Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road. That part is true. But she lost her role when filming moved from Australia to Africa. Williams didn’t get to film any scenes for the movie, but she did meet Theron and learned Muay Thai, a fighting style. “It was quite confronting,” she says of the training. “I had never punched anything. It was like a Billy Elliot movie.”

Unlike most competitive swimmers, Williams didn’t spend long hours training at a young age. She learned to swim growing up in the hot climate of Jakarta, Indonesia, and when she returned to Australia at age 10, she joined swim squads to hang out with friends. But it was more a hobby than a competitive activity, and she preferred running. “Swimming was my least favorite, because you couldn’t talk underwater,” she says. “I’d always get in trouble for trying to talk during swimming sessions.” Williams’s running qualified her for the preparation squad for the 2004 Athens Paralympics. But she was devastated when doctors informed her of small chips in her shinbones—stress fractures—and said that she couldn’t run anymore.

But her fortunes changed when the coach of the Paralympic team saw her swim and suggested she might have an opportunity to compete in the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, Australia. Williams, who was a high school senior at the time, won a silver and a bronze medal. Two years later, she made her way to Beijing for the 2008 Paralympic Games, where she won a bronze in the women’s 100-meter Butterfly S9. “Beijing was a bit too surreal,” she says. “I kind of just let it wash over me, and it sort of just happened without me really recognizing how amazing it was at the time.” 

By the time Williams arrived in London, she was a Paralympics pro and less overwhelmed. She says she recalls every detail, including her teammate asking almost immediately after they won if this meant they were flying home in business class, which is a perk for gold-medal winners. When a man at a Washington function recently asked Williams about the London Games and winning a gold medal, she told him that flying business class was one of the highlights. Turned out her questioner was a pilot for Air Force Two. She recalls thinking, “Ah, it’s probably better than business class.” 

This article appears in the November 16, 2012 edition of NJ Daily.

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