8:56 PM EDT, June 5, 2012
Andrew Riley agreed with a laugh that any race that needs more than the straightaway might as well be a marathon as far as he is concerned.
That's why the University of Illinois 110-meter high hurdles champion never has tried the 400 hurdles.
"I don't think I'd be able to make it around the track," he said.
So it seems amusing now that the Illini saw Riley as a multi-eventer — decathlon and heptathlon — when they were recruiting him from Jamaica, where he won the national junior title in a heptathlon without the pole vault that did have a 1,500-meter run.
That idea lasted only until he tried the pole vault for the first time in a meet as an Illinois freshman. He led after five events of the 2009 Wisconsin Elite heptathlon but failed to clear a height in the vault.
"I still believe if Andrew wanted to be a multi guy, he could do it," said Mike Turk, the first-year Illini men's head coach, an assistant in 2009.
"It was a last-minute decision to throw him in that meet, and I couldn't get him comfortable in the vault. When he didn't clear, we decided to concentrate on the hurdles and the high jump and put off the multis."
Riley, a senior, never has done another multi.
He has become reigning Jamaican hurdles champion and a strong contender for both the London Olympics and a second NCAA outdoor title this week in the Division I championship meet at Drake Stadium in Des Moines, Iowa, where Riley also will run the 100 meters and a leg of the 4 x 100 relay.
"I'm glad the multis didn't work out," Riley said, laughing again.
Riley also would stop high jumping after his freshman year, when he finished ninth in the Big Ten meet with a leap of 6 feet 103/4 inches. By then, after he had won the Big Ten indoor hurdles title, it was apparent his greatest potential was in that event.
"He shocked us that first indoor season in the hurdles," Turk said. "After that, we watered down his plate."
And Riley's equally unexpected hurdles victory at the NCAA outdoors as a sophomore made it clear that potential was far greater than Riley or his coaches had imagined.
"I wasn't thinking about track being in my future beyond college," he said. "I came from a humble background. My challenge was to get an education."
He was more focused on leaving behind forever the poverty he grew up with in Jamaica, where his mother is a domestic worker and his father a painter. The humility has stayed, as evidenced by his saying, "yes, sir" or "no, sir" about once a minute in a telephone interview.
Riley will get a degree in finance this December and he hopes eventually to become an entrepreneur. He now sees the possibility of a professional career in track, especially if he makes Jamaica's Olympic team and does well at the London Games.
In last year's world championships, his first big international meet, Riley made the hurdles semifinals. His personal best time in the 110 hurdles has dropped from 13.74 as a freshman to a school record 13.28 this season, putting him 13th on the 2012 world list — about two-tenths of a second from the elite.
Riley's flat speed (10.19 for the 100 at the NCAA West regionals May 24) gives him a big upside once he learns how to use it best in the hurdles.
"He is definitely the fastest hurdler out there," said Illini women's coach Tonja Buford-Bailey, 1996 Olympic silver medalist in the 400 hurdles and four-time Big Ten champion in the 100 hurdles, who works with Riley on the event.
"You can't just get faster between the hurdles by pushing harder," Turk said. "You have to move your feet quicker and quicker."
A substantial tailwind at last year's NCAA outdoors complicated Riley's need to harness his speed and likely cost him a second straight title as he was runner-up to LSU's Barrett Nugent. Riley goes into this year's meet with the fastest collegiate hurdles time of the season.
His runner-up finish in the flat 60 in school-record time (6.57) at the NCAA Indoor Championships last March has created considerable anticipation over what he might do in the 100 beginning with Wednesday's semis — especially since Riley won the event at the West regionals and has put extra focus on sprinting only the last two seasons.
The sprint-hurdles double is now Riley's idea of multi events. The finish of each is straight away.
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