Team Brazil

Montclair State student shines on the ice at South Korea Olympics as classmates cheer her on.

The soft red sweatshirt became a favorite outfit inside the athletes’ village at the Pyeongchang Olympics, and every time Isadora Williams wore it, she knew she was inviting conversation with speed skaters or hockey players or even volunteers from different corners of the world.

“Where is Montclair State?” they would almost always ask.

Williams would explain that Montclair State is a university in northern New Jersey, just outside of New York City. That was the easy part. But if the conversation continued, if the curious fellow Olympian wanted to know how a Brazilian figure skating pioneer ended up there – well, she would say, that was a long story.

The best athletes in the world gathered in South Korea in February for the quadrennial celebration of winter sports, and among them was a Montclair State dietetics major representing a country that few people associate with anything cold.

Williams represented Brazil, a country of 200 million people, which doesn’t have a single regulation-sized ice rink within its borders. But she was also representing her adopted home in New Jersey, and her new friends gathered on campus each time she performed to watch from afar.

Isadora Williams bent over while figure skating.

“I think I need to pay my roommate to be a marketer for me because she has literally told everyone on campus,” Williams says with a laugh. “They had a watch party for me at our dorm. I’m not the first Olympian from Montclair State. They have a wall of all the others and they put me on the wall, and when I saw that, I was touched.”

She belongs on that wall. A strong showing in the short program qualified her for the free skate, accomplishing one of her biggest goals. And, while she had hoped for a cleaner performance on that second night of competition, her 24th-place finish was the best showing for Brazil in the Pyeongchang Games.

Her teammates, recognizing that accomplishment, voted her their flag bearer for the Closing Ceremony. Williams had the honor of marching into the stadium alongside all of the chosen athletes from across the globe, the greatest honor of her career…even if the task was a little harder than she expected.

“The flag is heavy!” she says. “All of the other athletes were huge, six-foot-tall bobsledders or speed skaters, and I’m this little pipsqueak. But to be with all of these amazing athletes who overcame so much to get there, it was amazing.”

Blazing her own path

Williams had an unusual journey too. She was born in Atlanta to a Brazilian mother and American father and lived in Brazil for two years as a young child, giving her dual citizenship. She picked up a love of skating from a birthday party in Georgia, and when her parents put her in group lessons, it was clear from almost the very start that she was a natural.

Isadora Williams figure skating.

“I just kept going with it because I happened to not be any good at any other sport. I liked skating and performing,” she says. “And when I was little, my mom was always telling me, ‘You’ll be a Brazilian figure skater. You’ll represent Brazil.’ And so on my fourth-grade papers, I wrote that, ‘When I grow up, I’m going to be an Olympic figure skater’ along with all the astronauts and firemen.”

She could have competed for a spot on the American team, but the idea of representing her other home country – one that had never placed a figure skater in the Olympics – was more appealing. The United States, after all, already had a long tradition in the sport. Why not try to blaze her own path?

Williams qualified for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, as a teenager, bringing an unfamiliar winter sport to the forefront in Brazil.

“That was the first year that figure skating was broadcast on public television in Brazil,” she says. “A lot of little girls supported me, and my mom got messages saying how inspired they were to skate.”

The road to Montclair

In the U.S., she was well known only inside the figure-skating community. But in Brazil, she had become a minor celebrity, once getting recognized in the Rio de Janeiro airport, and helping to build support for the sport.

But she was faced with a decision as she continued her career. Yes, she wanted to compete in Pyeongchang, but she also wanted to continue her studies to prepare for a life when she was done skating. She was training in Northern Virginia and attending a community college, but she couldn’t find a school in the area that had a dietetics program.

“When I was little, my mom was always telling me, ‘You’ll be a Brazilian figure skater. You’ll represent Brazil.’ And so on my fourth-grade papers, I wrote that, ‘When I grow up I’m going to be an Olympic figure skater’ along with all the astronauts and firemen.”

Isadora Williams

That’s when her mom, through a conversation with a friend of another figure skater in Brazil’s junior program, discovered Montclair State. Not only could she live on campus and pursue her chosen degree, but she could train with coaches Igor Lukanin and Kristen Fraser at Floyd Hall Arena.

It was a perfect fit. Williams moved to Montclair and enrolled in the dietetics program, and as local kids learn the very basics of ice skating on one rink inside Floyd Hall, she can be found honing her skills on the other one.

“She’s an inspiration to the young skaters,” says Denise Rodak, an assistant registrar at the University whose daughter, Amy, is also coached by Fraser. “Not only are they sharing the ice with an Olympian, but they see that she’s going to school, living in a dorm and taking care of her studies.”

The latter isn’t always easy. Williams signed up for several online courses, which allows her to not fall too far behind when she’s competing overseas. Within a few weeks of her arrival, her fellow students started to realize that their new classmate was more than an average student.

“Some of them [realized I was an athlete] because I miss a lot of class,” she says. “They’re like, ‘Where do you GO? What’s happening?’ And I would tell them, ‘Oh, well, I was in this competition …’

“This is such a community-based university. I’m part of the Dietetics Club. There are a lot of concentrations within my major here, and I’ve met a lot of people who are interested in the same things as I am. They do such a good job of getting you involved.”

They also support their own. When Williams returned to New Jersey from Pyeongchang as a two-time Olympian, her friends at Floyd Hall welcomed her with a congratulatory banner. From Brazil to Montclair to Korea, it was quite a journey.