It was the middle of the night and Charity Williams sat by herself on a bench alongside Queen’s Park in Toronto.
For the first time in her life, she had no place to go and no place to sleep. She was 16 years old.
She hoped someone would stop to help her.
“I remember being cold,” she says. “I was mostly scared and I was tired.”
No one stopped.
“I was hungry.”
She stayed awake all night.
Seven years on, Williams recalls that night from her home in Victoria where she has lived for the better part of those last seven years.
“I was just thinking – I don’t know,” Williams, 23, says, remembering that night. “I wasn’t thinking about giving up my dream, but I just didn’t know how it was going to be possible at that point.”
When she was 14 years old, Williams had moved out on her own, living a vagabond existence amidst Toronto’s downtown, couch-surfing and staying with friends. Yet, she remained steadfast in her one overarching goal. She was going to become an Olympian.
“I’ve wanted to make it to the Olympics since I can remember remembering anything.”
Her aspirations never wavered.
“I wanted it so, so bad. I couldn’t see a reality where it wasn’t happening. I held onto that. And, I just wanted to be happy. It felt good to have something to hold onto in those times when it was really tough.”
Williams’ Olympic dreams germinated on a gymnastics mat.
She was a dedicated gymnast early in her life – joining the sport when she was three years old and flourishing over a decade-long career. When Williams was 11 years old, she watched in awe as American gymnastics legend Shawn Johnson East earned four medals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. She dreamt of being a Canadian star of similar ilk.
“After that, every decision I made was made in the hopes of becoming an Olympic athlete.”
However, when she was 14 years old, she not only moved out of her family home, but she quit her sport. She had come to the realization that it wasn’t going to be gymnastics that would get her to the Olympics. A few months later, on the suggestion of a friend, she took up rugby.
“It was a scary transition because I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
It had been announced in the fall of 2009 that the sport of rugby sevens was to be included in the Olympic programming, starting in 2016 in Rio. Upon learning this, Williams Olympic pathway became clear, and in rugby, she found a sport she loved and one that embraced her.
“Playing rugby, I felt super powerful,” Williams says. “I was always strong growing up and I was different than all the girls and it was sometimes hard to look different. I felt alone or sometimes I would get bullied for having muscles, which today seems absolutely ridiculous that it would bother me. But being young and being female and wanting to be accepted, it was a hard place to be.
“But in rugby, my strength was what was needed to succeed.”
Slumped on that Queen’s Park bench, even Williams’ vivid imagination likely couldn’t have concocted what was to come in the subsequent three years.
She found a place to stay the following night and within a week, Barb Relton – a longtime rugby coach and mentor in the Toronto area and a member of the Rugby Ontario Hall of Fame – changed Williams’s life. Relton reached out to help Williams, who had once played with Relton’s daughter.
That year, 2013, Williams was trying out for Team Ontario, but with the national championship set to be held across the country in B.C., she wasn’t able to afford the trip. Relton, who also took Wiliams into her house for a few weeks before helping to find Williams a place on her own, fundraised the necessary money and paid for Williams to go.
“That was the most incredible thing,” Williams says. “Her doing that is ultimately the reason I’m here today and playing on this team and living my dream. If she hadn’t done that for me, I don’t think I would have made it on my own.”
After the tournament in B.C., Williams, who was still just 16 years old, was offered the opportunity of a lifetime – she was asked to join Canada’s Women’s Sevens program.
“It was so surreal,” Williams says. “I didn’t even know what was happening. I just knew I was moving to Victoria.”
In the fall of 2013, she left Toronto and began her journey with Rugby Canada to Rio.
She made her debut in red and white in December of 2013 with the Maple Leafs at the Tobago International Rugby 7s Tournament. The following year, she won a silver medal at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games and then, in February of 2015, she earned her first opportunity to play on the World Rugby Sevens Series, donning the Maple Leaf in Sao Paolo.
However, following the 2014-15 season and just ahead of the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto, Williams was released from the national program.
“I was so distraught and I didn’t want to see anybody. The hardest part was that I wasn’t even going to be on the team in my hometown.”
Less than two years after her Olympic doorway seemed wide open, the opportunity appeared to be slipping away. Williams recalls the moments.
“When I got carded, it was such a relief to have a stable income, to have a home that was my own and to be doing what I love and not have added stress,” she says about her arrival in Victoria. “It took a huge weight off my shoulders, but it kind of put me in a position where I felt safe and I kind of stopped fighting. I was so tired of fighting for so long and I took a deep breath, but I held that breath for a long time. I didn’t wake up early enough.”
She remained resolute. While the Olympics were only a year away and she was now no longer a carded athlete with the national side, she didn’t quit. Not then. Not ever.
In that moment, Williams called Dana Agar-Newman, who she knew through his work with the rugby teams as a strength and conditioning coach with Canadian Sport Centre Pacific. They had burgers and came up with a plan to get Williams back into the squad.
She stayed in Victoria, training her way back into favour with the coaching staff – eventually earning something of a “tryout” with the Maple Leafs in Dubai in December 2015.
“I think I did okay,” she says. “I must have done good enough.”
That January, in 2016, she was re-carded as a national team athlete. She called Agar-Newman.
“Nothing changes now,” Agar-Newman told Williams. “Just keep working.”
She made her return to the world series in early April in Kennesaw, Georgia before also playing in the final two stops of the series, in Canada (Langford, B.C.) and France (Clermont-Ferrand).
Her performances eventually led to a meeting with Canadian women’s sevens coach John Tait – one that Williams will never forget.
Sitting down with Tait and the team’s manager in an office at the Pacific Institute for Sport Excellence (PISE), Williams heard the news she had been dreaming about since she was a young gymnast. She had made Canada’s roster for the Olympic Games in Rio.
“It was remarkable to see her making that Olympic squad because it was such a big dream and big goal,” recalls long-time Canadian Sevens star Bianca Farella. “She is absolutely inspiring.”
In Brazil, the reality of her situation and her realized dreams struck Williams.
“Three years ago, I was homeless and now I’m at the Olympics.”
She played in three games, coming on as a second-half substitute against Japan, Brazil and, in the semifinals, against Australia when she scored Canada’s lone try in a 17-5 loss to the eventual gold-medallists.
In the bronze-medal game, Canada was in fine form, winning 33-10 over Great Britain. Williams returned to Canada as an Olympic medallist.
Yet, for the speedy Williams, a loftier goal still remained.
“After we got that bronze medal, I kept just thinking that I wanted gold.”
In the four years since, she has gone on to collect 70 career tries, which has her third all-time in Canadian history behind only Farella (153) and Ghislaine Landry (143).
“Charity is such a force and such an athletically gifted human being,” Farella says. “It’s so remarkable how she gets out of tough situations in rugby. It’s so hard to take her down because she’s so powerful on her feet and she’s so quick up off the ground. It’s so fun to watch.
“When she’s on the field, you know big things are going to happen.”
Big moments have become Williams’ specialty.
Backed up nearly their own goal line with the second half hooter already blown, Canada trailed by five points against Ireland in their final pool play game of the day at the 2018 Canada Sevens event in Langford. A loss would see Canada miss out on the quarter-finals. Taking the ball, she evaded two Irish tacklers and ran the length of the field with a thunderous home crowd roaring with approval. It was vintage Williams.
“She’s put on in high stakes moments,” Farella says. “And it’s a big sigh of relief for us. She can just turn the corner off a scrum and do her thing and once she’s free, no one can catch her.”
Her free-wheeling success has become commonplace within her career. It’s a testament to her never-quit attitude – from her ever-difficult days in Toronto to world-travelling weekends on the circuit.
“I don’t think I’d want to have the difficult journey I had again, but it definitely made me resilient and made me the athlete that I am.”
Her experiences have also made her into the person that she is. Williams has also gone from being the youngest player on Canada’s roster in Rio to a welcoming veteran, on and off the field.
When former Canadian Sevens player Tausani Levale first arrived with the program, she moved in with Williams for the first month of her time on Vancouver Island. She experienced everything that is Williams.
“I was obviously star-struck by her, but she just embraced me,” Levale says. “She made me feel like a valued person on the team. As a younger player coming on the team, I was completely embraced by her. It was such an amazing experience.
“It’s so beautiful because she knows who she is and she’s very confident in herself. She opens herself up to people. She has a lot of wisdom to share and I’ve learned a lot from her about what it means to come out successful on the other side.”
In five tournaments this year, 2019-20, she has scored 16 tries, which had her tied with teammate Landry for eighth on the series.
However, with the COVID-19 pandemic enveloping the world, the series was postponed. Then, most recently, the Olympics were postponed.
Her golden dream will have to wait. But her fervor remains.
“In reality, the Olympics are a year later and now it’s just back to the drawing board,” Williams says. “We have an extra year to train and improve. It sucks because I wish the world wasn’t going through this completely devastating pandemic and I wish the tournament was happening this year, but you have to wake up every day and keep going.”
Williams’ first-ever post on her Instagram page came on Sept. 14, 2013. She was on the precipice of joining the national program.
The image is a 16-year-old Williams standing on the gold-medal platform at the Whistler Olympic Park. The Olympic rings are just over her right shoulder. Her hands are on her hips and she has a big smile. She’s wearing Rugby Canada apparel.
Less than three years later, her own Olympic aspirations came true.
Now, as she looks to 2021, her dream is to take the final step to the top.