Andrew Riley has a lot on his plate at Illinois, not the least of which is keeping an eye on this summer’s biggest prize, a spot on the Jamaican Olympic team in the 110-meter hurdles.
His hurdles coach, three-time Olympian Tonja Buford-Bailey, was quick to point out there is a lot more to Riley than being a hurdler.
“He’s quiet, really focused, really dedicated to the sport and even more dedicated to his academics,” said Buford-Bailey, herself a former Illinois athlete and the sprint coach for the U.S. women in this summer’s London Olympics.
“He truly is an athlete that is a student-athlete. He will miss a day of training because he hadn’t slept all night because he was studying. He’s a business finance major, and at U of I that’s like one of the toughest majors you can ever imagine. He really, really works hard there.”
And she laughed.
“He is also not the typical person you would see walking around in the business department. But he works really hard, he’s smart and he’s focused on that. And it goes over in training, too, because he’s very coachable. You tell him to do something one time and he does it right and he continues to do it right. So that really helps in his progress.”
“It’s a very hard load,” Riley admitted. “You stay up late a lot of nights doing work, preparing for exams, cases. It’s been rough, but I can’t complain. I’m having success. It’s hard, but at the end of the day you’re going to benefit from it in the long run.”
Riley will graduate in December, but in the meantime looks forward to more battles with his friendly rival, LSU senior Barrett Nugent. When they were freshmen, Riley finished fifth in the 100 hurdles and Nugent ninth.
In 2010, Riley won the event, just ahead of Nugent. Then last spring, Nugent won the NCAA title, just ahead of Riley.
“We’ve been competitors since freshman year,” Nugent said. “He beats me, I beat him. Neither one of us wants to lose so when we’re running we want to beat each other and whoever wins, we’re both happy for each other.”
This past Saturday, in a meet at LSU, Riley was competing in his first meet of the season. Nugent won this time, finishing in 13.49 seconds, just ahead of Riley’s 13.52.
“It was a good, clean race. As long as it was clean, I’m happy,” Nugent said. “I don’t think we were really pushing each other too hard today. We’re great rivals and have great respect for each other. I want to win, but it would mean a lot more at NCAAs. It doesn’t matter at all until we run at nationals.”
Riley purposely got a late start to the season, gearing everything toward the Jamaican Olympic trials the last week of June, the same time as the U.S. trials.
He was coming off a disappointing fourth-place finish in the NCAA indoor 60-meter hurdles in which the defending champion finished fourth, just behind – who else? – Nugent.
A half hour later, Riley competed in the 60-meter dash. He nearly won, finishing second by one-hundredth of a second to Florida’s Jeff Demps.
“It was funny. I don’t run the sprints. I don’t care for the sprints,” Riley said.
Perhaps, but it made his coaches happy.
“That was a big shocker,” Buford-Bailey said. “People didn’t realize he was that fast. And it was good that he hand another event after the devastation of the hurdles to have something else to focus on. To come out second was pretty amazing.”
Don’t get any ideas, however. Riley quickly points out that he comes from a country of sprinters, including Usain Bolt, and will stick to hurdles this season.
Not that he can’t do other events in track and field.
“Andrew was actually the Jamaican junior champion in the heptathlon and won the Penn Relays in the high jump when he was in high school, so we actually recruited more as a multi-eventer,” Illinois head men’s coach Mike Turk said. “But when he first came here it was so apparent the kid was so good as a hurdler. He liked to sprint, but took to the hurdles so quickly.”
Of course, Riley had no idea about winters in central Illinois.
“Jamaica doesn’t get cold,” he said with a laugh. “But it’s a good experience.”
Now he’s hoping his experience pays off in the most important spring and summer of his athletic life.
Buford-Bailey is trying to help him juggle all three aspects, college season, Olympics aspirations and his next-to-last semester in school.
“I competed at the level he wants to compete at and I understand that there’s a fine line there and you have to balance the seasons out to still be able to compete in June, July, August,” she said.
Riley, for his part, evidently has full trust in his coach, although he might have been taken aback at first to be coached by a woman.
“She’s been an Olympian and a former athlete here, so her expertise has had a great impact on me,” Riley said. “She knows the business of track and field and she’s been through the ups and downs and sometimes I come to practice not feeling 100 percent, either tired or burdened by school, she designs a workout so every day I go to practice I maximize my practice.”
He has to be in the top three in the hurdles to make the Jamaican team. Barring something unusual, he should make it, especially considering he won the Jamaican national title last year.
“You know hurdle,” Riley said. “There a lot of great athletes who definitely can do great things. Going down there overconfident or something like that and not focusing on the race or the lane, stuff happens in hurdles. I’ve just go to stay focused and stay healthy and hopefully I can snatch a spot for the Olympics.”
If so, perhaps he can parlay success into gold, one way or another.
“That’s why I wanted a degree in finance. Whatever happens you always have that degree to fall back on,” Riley said. “I consider that a big plus for me. In sports, you can have a career-ending injury and you’re not too sure what might happen. So I tell everybody it’s good to get that degree.”