Hurdler Riley has shot at national championship

At this time last year, Andrew Riley was in the same position but with a much different mindset.

The then-freshman hurdler from Kingston, Jamaica, had only run for the Illinois men’s track and field team for three months and was competing in his first NCAA Indoor Championships. Needless to say, he was nervous.

Riley ended up picking up All-America honors on his way to a sixth-place finish in the 60-meter hurdles. This year, Riley hopes to use his past experience in order to improve on that sixth-place performance.

“I’m used to it and more mature now,” Riley said about competing on the big stage. “Last year it was my first year so I was nervous. Now, I’m just going out there and having some fun. Competing in nationals against the best guys in the country isn’t as big of a deal anymore.”

Riley goes into Friday’s preliminaries of the 60 hurdles ranked third in the nation in the event. The only competitor at the Indoor Championships for the Illini, he hopes to represent Illinois well.

“It’s unfortunate that I’m the only person from the school going, but that just means that I’ll have to hold the Illinois flag higher after the 60-meter finals,” Riley said.

Interim head coach Mike Turk said that Riley has a chance to be a national champion.

“Every time you have someone as good as he is competing in the position that he’s in, you have to think that there’s a shot that he can win this thing,” Turk said. “He’s not worried about the pressure. The biggest thing for him is keeping his focus and running, being patient and running his race.”

Other than the best competition in the nation, the biggest obstacle Riley will have to overcome in order to be successful is cleaning up his technique.

He’s been working with Tonja Buford-Bailey, head coach of the Illinois women’s track and field team, on improving his mechanics for much of the year. Turk said Buford-Bailey’s coaching has much to do with his star hurdler’s success.

“Coach Buford-Bailey is a great coach, and I’ve been very impressed with what she’s done with our sprinters,” Turk said. “She has brought quite a bit of influence to Andrew’s training.”

Eight athletes will qualify Friday for the finals. If Riley qualifies, as he is expected to do, he will compete on Saturday for a chance for the national title.

“A lot of guys are going to be nervous, but nerves are part of the game,” Riley said. “You have to believe that you are better than everyone else and compete at your best.”