In the fleeting moments when she can rest, Peyton Williams will sing.
Williams can pick up a guitar and play just about any song she hears. She’ll play mash-ups, mixing modern hits with the bluegrass sound she grew up hearing as a child in Branson, Mo. She also is comfortable with '60s and '70s funk as well as indie music.
It’s a helpful talent to have, since Williams hasn’t had much in the way of free time since she started her college career at Kansas State. Really, there wasn’t much open time in high school, either.
Williams’ schedule fluctuates throughout the year, going from insanely busy when it’s volleyball season to slightly more manageable once basketball begins and she no longer has to shuffle between both sports.
Now, Williams will wake up, eat breakfast and do homework before her “later classes,” which start at 9 a.m. and wrap up around noon. Then, she’ll go to the training room for treatment, practice until dinner and finish her day with more homework.
“Yes, I do sleep,” Williams said. “I don’t sleep as much as I probably should.”
It’s a pace that nearly overwhelmed Williams in the past. Yet she persevered, becoming an award-winning blocker for the Wildcats’ volleyball team and one of the top basketball players in the Big 12. She's only one of four active players in the Big 12 who plays both sports.
Despite her success in sports, athletic accomplishments are but a small part of Williams’ persona. Her goals extend far beyond the hardwood floors, finding homes in human rights activism and diplomatic representation.
“What she’s done here at Kansas State is pretty special,” K-State women’s basketball coach Jeff Mittie said. “Not just athletically, but in the classroom. ... You could put a picture of her next to (the word) ‘student-athlete.’”
When she was in fourth grade, Williams got in trouble for reading too much.
Williams always would try to sneak a few pages in during times when she was supposed to be working on a project or focusing on another area of the fourth-grade curriculum. It became such an issue that when Williams’ mother, Kim Fertig, arrived for her parent-teacher conference, Williams’ teacher was ready to take drastic measures to get Williams engaged in each day’s activity.
“She was like, ‘I know this sounds really weird, but you may have to ground her from reading for a while,’” Fertig said.
Williams’ reading habits were borne out of a life built on giving 100% effort in everything. However, as the reading during project time foreshadowed, there were only so many hours in a day for Williams to do each activity.
Upon reaching high school, a heavy workload confronted Williams — her classes and extracurricular activities. Writing papers was more of an every night activity than every week, and sports practice schedules became more intense.
There were times when Williams would attend club volleyball practice until 10 p.m., work on homework until 2 a.m. and then squeeze in a few hours of sleep before her 6 a.m. basketball practices.
“As a mother, I almost felt like that was abusive,” Fertig said. “I didn’t feel like a good mom and felt like she needed to give something up.”
Time and again, however, Williams refused her mother’s suggestions. She enjoyed both sports too much to sacrifice one. She enjoyed her classes too much to give up the more challenging curriculum for an easier workload.
Despite the heavy workload, Williams continued to excel both in the classroom and on the courts. By her sophomore year, colleges began to take notice of her accolades in both volleyball and basketball.
As interest increased in both sports, so did the pressure for Williams to choose one over the other.
“She’d play club volleyball and those coaches would say, ‘She’s really good. Why is she messing with basketball?’ The basketball coaches would say, ‘She’s really good. Why’s she messing with volleyball?’” Fertig said. “Neither saw the other side of her. She really was torn.”
Eventually, Kansas State offered her to play both sports. The idea of becoming just one of four student-athletes to compete in both volleyball and basketball was intriguing, but a major selling point for Williams was what she would be able to do away from the court.
At 9 years old, Peyton Williams already was seeing the world.
Her father, Eric, was living in Helsinki, Finland, and working as an accountant. To make up for lost time, he arranged for Peyton to visit him during a European summer holiday.
Eric took his daughter across Europe, swinging through Stockholm and Copenhagen as well as Estonia. The duo even made their way south to Paris at one point.
Eric never tried to impress his own love for travel upon his daughter. However, he did make sure she knew the experiences she was having were not available to everyone.
“These are opportunities that a lot of people don’t get,” Eric said. “I did make a point to call out that it was special, and that she should value the experience.”
Williams took her father’s words to heart. By the time she was considering where to go to college, she knew she wanted to study something that would allow her to travel.
In Williamsesque fashion, though, she couldn’t decide on just one emphasis area. When she enrolled at Kansas State, she did so majoring in anthropology while picking international studies as a secondary major. She also decided to minor in political science for good measure.
A few months in, Williams felt as though she couldn’t handle it all.
The speed of the games had become overwhelming, as had the practice and workload that had both grown beyond even her hectic high school schedule. There were a few tearful phone calls to her mother, and a few more calls — in the same tearful manner — to her father.
Yet as she had done throughout her life, Williams continued to push forward.
“I’ve always been a person who, if I commit to something, I’m going to see it through,” Williams said. “So that’s always been hard, because if it does get overwhelming, I’m like, ‘I cannot quit this. I said I was going to do it, so we’re going to do it.’”
Eventually, she found her groove. She saw how her interests could combine, with sports allowing her to travel around the country, and one day, around the world.
Now, Williams will leave Kansas State the same way she entered it: with options.
The first is to pursue a career in professional basketball. Williams’ career should put her on the radar for WNBA teams. Even if that falls through, she still believes she can make a career in a foreign basketball league.
The second is to use her degrees to work for human rights organizations throughout the world. She found a passion for women’s education and access to education through her studies, which provide opportunities for a career outside of basketball.
But once again, Williams isn’t quite ready to choose. Not yet. If she can, she’s going to continue down the same path she has her entire life.
She wants to do it all.
“I have a lot of different options that I’m looking at,” Williams said. “One of the things I am looking forward to with playing internationally is seeing what problem areas there are and what issues certain countries are struggling with. ... It’s just what kinds of opportunities present themselves on my journey and what that can pair well with.”