Nearly 36 years later, it still feels like yesterday for Leo Williams.
Williams, as a recent graduate of the Naval Academy, entered the 1984 Olympic Trials high jump final at the Coliseum as a two-time NCAA indoor champion, World University Games winner and the Pan American Games silver medalist and third-ranked jumper in the U.S. in 1983.
Dwight Stones won the Trials with an American record jump of 7 feet, 8 inches. Doug Nordquist, a former Fullerton College and Washington State jumper and Stones’ third cousin, was one of the biggest surprises of the Trials, jumping 7-7, a personal best by nearly three inches, leaving Williams and Milton Goode to battle for the third and final spot on the Olympic team.
Both cleared 7-5 ¾, but Goode secured third place by having fewer misses.
“That was 1984. I’m still not over it,” Williams said earlier this month. “I’m still not over it. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t go, ‘What could I have done? How could I have made that jump? What could I have done to prepare better?’”
Williams has taken that same obsession with detail to his latest challenge – fighting COVID-19.
Williams is president, CEO and co-founder of the Clean Sweep Group Inc., or CSGI, a Los Angeles-based microbial disinfectant business that uses ultraviolent light to kill viruses and bacteria.
“It’s not like any other business because we have to prove ourselves every day in the hardest conditions out there,” Williams said. “It’s not like you have the luxury of just having somebody assume you’re good. We have to be good. If we’re wrong in the wrong environment, people do get hurt. It’s just that simple.”
CSGI has been in high demand since the coronavirus pandemic, every day adding new residential and business customers to its clients in California and Florida.
“People start to realize our capabilities,” Williams said.
While business is up, Williams also admits there are days where he feels “like a paper airplane in a wind storm.”
The sterilization capabilities of ultraviolet light have been known since the 1870s.
“It’s not new what UVC can do,” Williams said. “Applications have just been improved maybe the last 15 to 20 years and I’d like to think our company has taken it to a whole different level.”
CSGI implements a disinfection method known as ultraviolet germicidal irradiation. With this process, wavelengths from UVC light kill viruses and bacteria by damaging their nuclear material and that creates mutations in their DNA that prevents them from properly reproducing.
“UV is an indiscriminate killer that can target both bacteria and viruses,” Alex Berezow, a microbiologist for the American Council on Science and Health, wrote in February .”UV light is such a potent disinfectant for the same reason that it causes skin cancer”
Williams and CSGI used UVC lamps known as emitters to kill viruses and bacteria.
“We don’t go after one virus,” Williams said. “The light kills all of them.
“COVID is a very fragile virus from the standpoint of killing it with UVC,” Williams said. “We can do that within seconds. But we want to manage from the perspective that everything is dangerous if that makes sense. So that’s how we approach attacking it in a hospital. So when people say, ‘Well, does it kill COVID?’ Yeah, it does but you still have to practice good hand hygiene, proper personal protective equipment. All those things go hand in hand with being able to manage this on an ongoing basis.”
COVID-19 first appeared on Williams’ radar in December.
“We pride ourselves in understanding different viruses that exist in the marketplace,” he said. “Because you have to understand we always have to be diligent in our hospital spaces. People shouldn’t go to a hospital and get worse. I mean that’s just horrible.”
Williams grew up in Muncie, Indiana. His father, Leo O. Williams, was also a high jumper, competing in the 1936 Olympic Trials as a teenager.
“I wanted to be like my dad,” Williams said
When his son was 10 or 11, the elder Williams built him a high jump pit in the family’s backyard.
“He built me a little pit. Tried to teach me the straddle and I said, ‘Whoo this is a little difficult,’” Williams recalled referring to a method of jumping where a jumper kicks their lead leg over the bar and then attempts to roll their body over it.
The straddle became obsolete with the success of the Fosbury Flop, a technique popularized by Dick Fosbury, the 1968 Olympic champion, where an athlete jumps with their back to the bar.
“Thank God Dick Fosbury came along,” Williams said. “I don’t know how good I would have been trying to do the straddle.”
He was good enough in high school to receive scholarship offers from Arizona State and Ohio State. His mother, however, had other ideas.
“I was a big fish in a little pond,” Williams said. “And my mom, God love her, she said to me, ‘Look, if you’re half as good as you think you are, I think you’ll do just fine at the Naval Academy.’ So thank God she had sense that I was crazy.
“So off to Annapolis I went and I never looked back.”
Williams won the 1981 NCAA indoor title with a meet record 7-5 ¼ jump. He raised the meet record to 7-5 ¾ in defending his NCAA indoor crown the following year. Williams competed for the U.S. in the inaugural World Track and Field Championships in 1983.
He graduated from Annapolis with a degree in mathematics-operations analysis and then served as an officer in the Navy’s civil engineer corps. After his Navy and high jumping careers, Williams spent several years in medical device sales before starting CSGI with Mark House, a West Point graduate.
The unlikely pairing of Naval Academy and West Point men wasn’t the only thing that raised eyebrows.
“Friends would go ‘You’re doing what now?’” Williams said. “And I’d say we’re in the microbial disinfectant business and they say, ‘Microbial what?’ We disinfect.
“’There’s no money in that,’” he continued recalling a familiar response from his friends. “Well, we think over the long haul. We think it’s going to be something that people really need.
“Now look at us? Who could have thought, right?”