Riley makes good on Olympic dreams, will compete for Jamaica

After being the first person ever to win national titles in both the 100-meter dash and the 110-meter hurdles, former Illini track star Andrew Riley is now heading to the London Olympics to compete for the Jamaica.

In what will be his first Olympics, Riley will be competing in the 110 hurdles after finishing second with a personal-best time of 13.36 seconds in the finals of the Jamaican Olympic trials. The day before, in the semifinal, Riley had finished first in his heat to make the finals. Though Riley notes it is always important to win a race, to make the team was still the goal.

“I compete, and I always want to get to the finish line first,” Riley said. “In the finals, that wasn’t the case. I took a lot of positives things from the trials. I just have to move forward. It’s not all the time that you can win a race.”

Riley now enters a field in which he plays an unfamiliar role — the underdog. According to Illinois men’s track and field head coach Mike Turk, Riley will have to finish with a time under 12 seconds in order to win. He will also be racing against the likes of Jason Richardson, Aries Merritt, Liu Xiang, all who have run the hurdles in 12 seconds or under. Illinois’ women’s track and field head coach and also Riley’s trainer for the summer games, Tonja Buford-Bailey, said being an underdog isn’t a bad thing. She even pointed to Illinois sophomore runner Ashley Spencer, who was the first person ever in the Big Ten to win the 400 meters at nationals, saying “plenty of underdogs have done amazing things.”

Buford-Bailey thinks he has a good chance to make the finals in hurdles, saying that she believes he is one of the best eight runners in the competition.

If he doesn’t win this year, it could be a chip on his shoulder that could help him four years down the road. As Turk pointed out, it has happened before, and he should be ready for it.

“I think out of disappointment and failure comes challenge and opportunity,” Turk said. “I think there was a big point for Andrew at the indoor national meet when he was expected to win the hurdles — he certainly expected to win the hurdles. He’d been running so great, and he just stumbled a little bit and he finished fourth. That was a real low point for him. I think a lot of people don’t realize how much that hurt him and how hard that was for him to deal with, and he had to come right back and run in that 60-meter dash final. He came back and got a PR and almost got the national title in the 60. I think that whole sequence really helped him elevate his mental approach again.”

Riley is currently training with Buford-Bailey before he leaves to go train with his Jamaican teammates July 18. Though they have cut the sprinting from training, preparation hasn’t changed much.

The training involves the usual work with hurdles, and he has also been watching tape from the Jamaican trials trying to fix little mistakes he has made.

“We just continued to do what we normally do,” Buford-Bailey said. “We worked on a little bit of start work prior to the NCAAs because he had the 100, and we just didn’t do that going into the Olympic trials because he didn’t need to do that.”

The goal of making the Olympics is something Riley voiced even earlier in the year, according to Turk. Though always focusing on his team, Riley has “always been focused” on his ultimate goal of the Olympics, according to Buford-Bailey.

“He knew the importance of being in the top three,” Buford-Bailey said. “In the NCAAs if he made a mistake and wasn’t in the top three, it wasn’t an end-all, be-all. He knew there was no do-overs at the Jamaican trials, and he had to really go into that meet and be in the top three. And he had to run a PR (personal record). He knew he had to run really fast, and he knew he had to be pretty much close to doing everything right.”

Buford-Bailey said Riley is used to having pressure on him.

He has been a team leader for the Illini the past couple of years, and he went into nationals trying to conquer a feat never done before.

The funny thing about Buford-Bailey training with Riley is the fact she is also the coach for the USA Sprinting and Hurdles team that will go up against the Jamaican team come Aug. 7. Turk said it wasn’t that out of the norm for a sport like track and Riley felt the same way.

“We sat down and discussed it at the time,” Riley said. “I think it won’t be a problem. A lot of it we came to an agreement on the time and place to train.”

Though the Olympics are a game of skill and ability, Buford-Bailey noted that there is some chance in it and that could help the former Illini runner.

“I’ve seen plenty of people win gold medals that no one expected to win,” Buford-Bailey said. “You run in the race to win, it doesn’t matter that it is the Olympics. You don’t go in saying, ‘Ah, I’m not capable of winning a medal so I’m gonna run for fifth.’ Everybody is running to win, you just don’t know. It could or it could never happen. You’ve had some of the greatest people on earth never get Olympic gold medals for whatever reasons. The ultimate goal is to have a good Olympic career, where you can do financially well and make a name for yourself.”