CHAMPAIGN – Kerry Ann Richards is leaning on a wall at the UI Armory. She's tired.
Tired of Midwest weather, for one thing. After more than four years in Champaign-Urbana, the Kingston, Jamaica, native and Illinois sprint star still has no appreciation of wind chill factors or 3 inches of slush. Go figure.
"I'm pretty sick of it, to be honest," Richards laughed. "I'm in bewilderment that people live here by choice."
She's tired of those mean customs agents in Chicago. When Richards flew back from a trip to Jamaica during the Christmas break, she did as always: She brought back as many comforts from home as she could fit into the largest pieces of luggage known to man. That included a few of her favorite peppers to make some authentic Jamaica food.
"They're like, 'Oh, these aren't allowed anymore,' " Richards said. "Fresh peppers that I love."
She's tired of dealing with injuries in both lower legs (accounting for three surgeries), which robbed her of two prime years but haven't prevented Richards from splashing her name all over the UI record book.
And she's tired of mixing workouts with an unforgiving class schedule. As a graduate student in advertising, her day is no less taxing than anyone else who works diligently, physically and mentally, from 8 in the morning to, say, midnight.
Richards is so tired, in fact, the three-time All-American is running faster now than she has at any point in her UI career.
"There were times she could have bagged it and gone home," UI coach Gary Winckler said. "I'm real proud of the fact she's worked her way through all of these problems and is now getting some benefits."
She is a study in perseverance. And, along the way, she has learned how to adjust to a different way of life. Americans move at a faster pace – at least when the snow isn't slowing them down. Given Richards' schedule, it appears she has made the transition.
"I have adjusted. I wouldn't say completely," she said. "I'm still not always on time. Still not. But I'm a lot more disciplined than before. A lot more."
Richards needs to be on time now. Four days a week, she has two-a-day workouts. From 8 to 10 a.m., she's property of Winckler. At 11, she's in class. And these are graduate classes, not the kind where a student can hide in the back of the room if she hasn't done her required reading.
"Classes now, I have like nine people. You sit in a circle. It's a two-hour class. You can't just sit there," Richards said. "And participation is a huge part of your grade, so you have to become more vocal, which really isn't me."
Once classes are over, she heads back to the Armory for more workouts, then home to read and read and read.
"This semester, I'm already way behind, and I'm really worried," said Richards, a National Dean's List member and George Huff Award winner. "I'm just exhausted. There's some teachers that will just load you up with work to read."
But for all the effort she puts into her studies, Richards faces obstacles on the track. At the end of her freshman year, she was saddled with bilateral stress fractures. They began as shin splints and, with stress, the bones became weak and cracked. The only way to heal is through rest. That didn't work. She had surgery to insert steel rods in her legs from knee to ankle. They healed the fractures, but they were "hell to move with," Richards said. She had those removed and a shorter set of rods inserted. They didn't work, either.
Finally, after a redshirt year and then a season that was so unfulfilling that she began comparing her times to those she ran as a 14-year-old, Richards told the doctor to take out the rods.
She doesn't regret the decision. Last season, her first without metallurgical enhancement, Richards won the Big Ten's 60-meter title, placed sixth in the NCAA meet and qualified for the NCAA championships in the 100.
"It has taken a big part of her career for everyone, including herself, to know how to manage that injury," Winckler said. "It's something that's probably never going to go away."
Richards said she makes compromises with her body now. She doesn't run as many repetitions as other sprinters. She doesn't even run every day.
"There's no way I can run every day with these shins right now," she said. "What frustrates me is I'm not able to train with the intensity and do everything I need to be as good as I can be. But I have to be grateful. Gary and I have really worked around it and tried to adjust. Surprisingly, it's working.
"Some days I have to just listen to my body and back off. I look at all the girls and think, 'I need to be running. I need to do this.' But after all these years you get a certain level of maturity about it, and you learn."
She learned well. Last summer, Richards was a member of Jamaica's 400 relay squad that won the gold medal at the Pan Am Games. When the Illini's indoor season began last month, she picked right up, winning the 60 in 7.43 seconds in her first meet and following that with another victory last weekend, provisionally qualifying for the NCAA meet in a sizzling 7.35. At the UI, only Benita Kelley and teammate Aleisha Latimer have run faster.
Latimer, a junior, runs stride for stride with Richards. They trade victories. When Richards won the 60 last year, Latimer won the 55. And she took the 100 – Richards' favorite event – at the Big Ten championships.
On Jan. 15, they ran 1-2 in the 60 finals. Both were timed in 7.43.
If the reconfigured training regimen has helped Richards get where she is, so has Latimer.
"I'm blessed and fortunate to be able to work with someone as fast as her," Latimer said. "It's good to be able to run with somebody like that because we push each other."
They are close friends. Richards said the teammates talk before meets but rarely communicate in the minutes leading up to a race.
"Probably for two people who are so close together, they get along better than any pair I've had in similar situations," Winckler said. "It's a healthy environment. They intend to beat each other each time they step on the track, and that's the way it should be."
Latimer has seen first-hand the adjustments Richards made. Even in learning to deal with the weather. ("I just feel sorry for her sometimes," said Latimer, a Colorado Springs native.) But Latimer will have to go solo next season while Richards embarks on a pro career or makes the most of that advertising degree.
"Track can be lucrative. This is a make-it, break-it year for me," Richards said. "If I run fast, I can make some money. I'm not going to make track a long-term career. Eventually I'll be working. Not in the Midwest."
But Chicago is an advertising hotbed. What if a UI alum who runs a Chicago advertising agency comes calling? What then?
She grinned. "You have to compromise."
FOUR ON THE FLOOR
Kerry Ann Richards last weekend posted the fourth-fastest 60-meter time in school history. The record book:
Rank, Runner, Time, Year
1, Benita Kelley, 7.27, 1996
2, Benita Kelley, 7.29, 1996
3, Aleisha Latimer, 7.34, 1999
4, Kerry Ann Richards, 7.35, 2000