Riley beats weather, excels on track

It sounded like the plot of Cool Runnings, only without bobsleds and set in Champaign.

University of Illinois freshman Andrew Riley arrived in Champaign in early January. As he exited the airplane, the Jamaica native was greeted by the Midwest winter.

“Somebody told me it was going to be cold,” Riley said jokingly. “The second day or third day it was like negative 13 degrees, it was cold.”

Before showing up for school, Riley had never experienced temperatures lower than 40 or 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Lately those have been the highest temperatures he can hope for.

In fact, Champaign’s climate made people close to Riley hesitant toward the idea of him running track at Illinois.

“Back home there was resistance like, ‘Why should I come here?’ because of the weather,” Riley said. “I look at the stats and I (wonder) ‘Who’s got my interests at heart, who wants me?’ And to pursue academic-wise and sports-wise, not only to be on the track and perform for a school but also my academics … that’s why I picked (Illinois),” said Riley.

Riley was never discouraged by the weather and has adapted well to the new climate. But he also had to adapt to something else – collegiate competition.

If his marks are any indication, Riley has had no problem with that. Improving his 60-meter hurdles time each meet, Riley’s efforts culminated in a first-place finish in the Big Ten Indoor Championships last weekend with a school-record time of 7.72 seconds.

Sophomore Cody Wisslead now trains with Riley and, after having a solid freshman year himself, sees that he can learn from his younger teammate.

“I think just watching him and learning is going to be the best thing for me, just watching him in practice and learning from him,” Wisslead said. “He’s amazing; he’s a very talented kid. I knew he was going to come up big for us in the finals of the hurdles and that’s what he did.”

Winning a Big Ten title and setting a school record as a freshman may make some wonder how Illinois found such a high-caliber athlete from a place as far away as Jamaica. The answer can be found in the connections of Illinois head coach Wayne Angel.

“One of my former athletes from Jamaica said that this is an up-and-coming star,” Angel said. “I researched it and found out that Riley was a two-time Jamaican national champion in the heptathlon and Jamaican national champion in the high jump so … I knew I had to get on the plane and find out what was going on.”

Angel got on a plane to Jamaica no fewer than three times. With that dedication, Illinois won out over several SEC schools that also showed interest in Riley, who has impressed Angel with his competitive spirit.

“Andrew’s not really afraid of anybody,” Angel said. “His attitude is, ‘We’re going to get on the line and see what happens.’ He’s very intense. When he trains he’s really into his own world when he starts warming up. He’s very focused, very dedicated, very committed.”

There is another thing that impresses Angel.

“What I like about him the most is not so much the drive athletically, (but) his drive academically because he wants to do very well as a student,” Angel said.

Riley is currently in the division of general studies and hopes to major in finance. Whatever happens professionally, track will still be a big part of his life.

“Track has a lot to give me,” Riley said. “Track is a big thing back home, when you have a track meet the stadium is packed. I just love track.”

Being a part of the Jamaican track scene, Riley has even picked up a few things from 2008 Olympic gold-medalist Usain Bolt.

“We trained on the same track,” Riley said. “I see him train and kind of imitate some of his style and training techniques.”

Even though Riley now finds himself in a world far removed from Jamaica, he has found many things he likes about Illinois, as well as one thing he could do without.

“I just love it, the ARC, the culture, the environment,” he said. “Except for the cold.”