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In the New Sport Grid, Monique Williams Reigns Supreme

 

Monique Williams is a force to be reckoned with—not just because the 5'3'', 136-pound 24-year-old Floridian is an impressive athlete in her own right, but because she's single-handedly putting a new sport on the map.

But before you get to know Williams, you need to get to know Grid. The National Pro Grid League—which consists of eight teams throughout the country—kicked off its inaugeral season in 2014, and describes itself as "strategic team athletics racing." Translation: During a match, two co-ed teams of seven men and seven women race head-to-head for two hours, completing 11 four- to eight-minute races that test everything from speed and strategy to skill and endurance through a variety of weightlifting and bodyweight elements. Fun fact: one man and one woman on each team must be over the age of 40. Think of it as CrossFit on crack (which makes sense, since founder Tony Budding was a former employee of CrossFit Inc.). (Meet The Most Fearless Athletes of the 2015 CrossFit Games.)

Williams has been in on Grid since the beginning. An athlete most of her life, Williams constantly gravitated to male-dominated sports like basketball, flag football, and track and field. It was her love of the latter that propelled her athletic career to the next level—she received a track and field scholarship to the University of South Florida, where she became a two-time Big East champion in both the long jump and the triple jump.

After college, Williams was looking for a new athletic outlet. "I had been doing CrossFit, and my fiancé belonged to a box in West Palm Beach," says Williams. "I had heard about Grid through social media, but I really got a feel for the sport in August 2014 when he came home with tickets to the Miami vs. New York match held in Coral Gables. I was definitely a bit confused at times about what was going on in the match, but it was clear to me that everyone competing was having so much fun. It reminded me of my track and field team in college and all the fun we had together."

Inspired by that match, Williams joined the Orlando Outlaws, a minor league team in the Southern Amateur Grid League (SAGL). After performing the Grid specialty tests, which measure speed, power, strength and bodyweight movements, she decided she was ready for the next level. "I attended the pro day in Miami, which was the first step in showcasing my skills for professional competition," says Williams. "Afterwards, I was invited to the Maryland combine, which was a chance for the professional teams in the league to assess and evaluate my skills to see if I'd be a good addition."

It was an inspiring experience for Williams. "To see so many athletes out there determined to prove that they belonged on a team was so motivating and the atmosphere gave me so much energy," she says. As Williams demonstrated her diverse athletic abilities, there was no question she belonged on a pro team—she was picked tenth overall in the draft, and selected to join the LA Reign. (Ever wonder How the Highest-Paid Female Athletes Make Money?)

Going pro marked an exciting and piviotal turning point in Williams' athletic career, but the relocation from Florida to California was not without its sacrifices. "The time difference and being away from my fiancé were the biggest challenges," says Williams. "And playing at this higher level of competition was a lot more taxing than I realized."

Williams, along with the other women and men on the team (all of whom are paid athletes), spend many sweat-soaked hours at mandatory training camps and practices. "We practice mainly Monday-Friday, often from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., with occasional half days on Saturdays depending on if we have matches or not," says Williams. The exact training schedule is up to head coach Max Mormont. Mormont is no stranger to high-level athletics. A lifelong athlete who excelled in weightlifting—qualifying for both the 2008 and 2012 Olympic trials in the sport—Mormont entered the 2015 season as the director of training and strategy for the Reign and soon after took over as head coach of the team.

While Mormont ultimtely chooses who will perform which skills over the course of a match, every person needs to be ready to do whatever is needed for the team, especially if things don't go exactly accordingly to plan. "Each teammate has to strive to complete each race as fast as they can without slowing down, as the winning team in each race is awarded 2 points, except race 11, which is 3 points," shares Williams. "If we don't win the race, we still need to finish before the time runs out in order to earn one point, as every point earned on the Grid goes towards our ultimate goal of winning the match."

Although there are 23 total players on the team, only seven men and seven women are on the field—or grid—at a time (teams are permitted unlimited player substitutions for most races). A self-described generalist, Williams has had the opportunity to show off her skills quite extensively, competing in every match the team has had. "Playing a match brings both excitement and nervousness," says Williams. "Before a match, Coach Max always reminds me to smile, because at the end of the day we are there to have a good time and to support one another." 

The team aspect is what originally piqued Williams interest in the sport, and it's still something that she loves about Grid to this day. "It's awesome to see athletes showcase their skills with no gender bias," says Williams. "As someone who has always participated in sports mostly dominated by men, I've often been told that I can't jump as far or can't lift much as my male counterparts. Grid gives me the opportunity prove them wrong—with a smile."

But Grid's equal opportunity rules and grueling training regimens haven't quieted the haters. "As much as I find comments like 'men are stronger than women' distasteful, I don't let it bother me," Williams says. "People are entitled to their own opinions. For me, it provides motivation to continue to excel in the sport." (Psst... This 20-Year-Old Golfer Is Proving Golf Isn't Just a Guy's Game.)

And excel she does—after the National Pro Grid League (NPGL) championship match on September 20, Williams was officially named the 2015 NPGL Rookie of the Year. "I'm really excited and grateful to be recognized, especially among so many unbelievable athletes," she says. "I truly believe that working hard, staying humble, and committing to doing anything for the team is what put me in the position to receive this award."

Her hard work has also put her in a position to champion the body positive movement being led by kickass athletes like UFC champion Ronda Rousey, Olympic hammer thrower Amanda Bingson, and more (get to know the Strong Women Changing the Face of #GirlPower). "Strong isn't a word just to describe men," says Williams. "Being strong feels empowering. I think it's pretty amazing that women like me now have the opportunity to have a career as an athlete and not just dream about it."

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