Life of Riley

Life of Riley

Growing up, the heaviest clothing Andrew Riley wore was a hoodie. He would wear one in the winter evenings, when temperatures in Jamaica would drop near 60 degrees.

For the first 20 years of his life, a hoodie was all he needed — the only time he experienced true cold near his home in the hills above Kingston was when he reached his hand in the refrigerator.

That explains why Riley stepped off the plane at Willard Airport in January 2009 clad in no more layers than a hoodie and a shirt.

It didn't take long for Riley to realize he wasn't in Kansas — or, in his case, Kingston — anymore.

Two days after arriving to start what would become an illustrious college career at Illinois, Riley awoke at the Holiday Inn on North Lincoln Avenue, where he was staying with other members of the track team until the residence halls opened. After breakfast, he opened the door to head to track practice when it hit him: The temperature had dropped "from 30 to bleeping cold."

"Don't matter how many layers you're dressed in," he said. "When it's below zero, you'll be freezing."

Layers shouldn't be an issue this weekend as temperatures are expected to be in the 70s at the Big Ten Championships in Madison, Wis., where Riley enters as the favorite to win the 100 meters and 110 hurdles.

Riley remembers that each step took him through snow that rose above his tennis shoes and ankle-high socks. Riley began to wonder: Maybe he should have listened to those who told him it would be difficult to succeed at track at a northern school. Maybe he should have gone to the Southeastern Conference, as did his high school coach, Michael Clarke (Auburn). Maybe he should have stayed in Jamaica, as did Usain Bolt.

"I just told myself that I'm going to make it no matter what," Riley now recalls, 3 1/2 years, two individual national titles, eight Big Ten titles and four school records later.


When Riley was no more than 5 or 6, he remembers sitting on couches watching TV in strangers' houses as his mother, Geneva, dusted and cleaned around him. A domestic helper, Riley's mother would maintain a different house every day, five days a week, often working 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. The houses belonged to doctors, lawyers and businessmen, people who had attended universities. Riley's mother never made it to a university. She began working full time after having Riley's older sister, Lesha, and never finished high school.

Yet Geneva worked tirelessly in hopes that her four children would one day live in the kind of houses she cleaned. To get them there, she taught independence from an early age. Riley estimates he started washing and pressing his clothes at age 11. He was even younger when he began washing dishes. He learned to cook for his two younger siblings by age 13.

Coming from a poor family, his mother knew the difference between needs and wants. She made sure Riley knew the difference, too. If it was not for school, he probably didn't need it. Riley rarely got into trouble growing up — sports kept him busy. Although he credits his mother for teaching him his discipline, he says he got his physical gifts from his father, Keith.

"Even though he's, what, 60-something now, he's still got muscles," Riley said of his father, who served in the army and has remained fit through decades spent working construction.

His mother knew little about track, but she constantly stressed he stay on the right path: Don't miss classes. Do your homework. Don't fall into bad company. Don't be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Work hard. Nothing in life comes easy.

"I want to teach you everything," he remembers her saying. "So that you don't have to depend on other people to do stuff or other person to tell you to do stuff."


Riley was recruited to Illinois by then-coach Wayne Angel, who visited Jamaica twice and brought stacks of magazines showing off various rankings of Illinois' business school. Riley was sold. He was attracted to business through his love of math and his older sister's profession as an accountant. Business also presents a slim hope of changing the world.

"My country is a third-world country," he says. "And every time I look at the finance minister or somebody talking, and the country is in so much debt and stuff like that, that I just wonder if I could even make a difference."

Although track currently pays the bills through scholarship money, the sport boasts about as low a chance of a lucrative professional career as any. Eleven-second races don't bring in the money like 60 minutes of football or nine innings of baseball.

"It's not like something I really dwell on," Riley says of the possibility of running professionally. "I mean, the only thing I dwell on is to do good, to be the best at what I do. And if I take care of that, everything else falls into place."

Yet Riley boasts a better chance than most at making a career out of running. The 2012 Olympics are fast approaching, and an appearance is possible for Riley. In April, he ran the second-fastest 110-meter hurdles time in the world this year. Such an opportunity was not on Riley's radar when he came to Illinois hoping only that track would continue to act as a vehicle for his education. Hurdling and high-jumping were always the means, not the ends. Yet now he has a shot, however unlikely, at something else.

"Seizing an opportunity, that's it," he says. "You've got to get an opportunity and just seize it. Seize the moment."

If running doesn't work out after Riley graduates from Illinois in the fall — four years from when he started in the winter of 2009 — he'll be job-searching, as was always the plan. The finance major is hoping to work in the U.S. and send money back to his family. A job — and a better life for his family — is why he came to Illinois in the first place. That's why he stayed through the cold and through the all-nighters.


Early in his career at Illinois, Riley battled procrastination, having to stay up all night to beat academic deadlines. But he vowed to stop it cold. After all, it's what his mother taught him. He's done it again and again. A quiet person, he enrolled in Speech Communications 101 his first semester and had to give speeches. He did it and became much more outgoing as a result.

Tonja Buford-Bailey, the head coach of the Illinois women's track team and Riley's personal coach, said he attacks problems on the track in the same way. Tell him something once, and he does it. Present a problem, and he'll look to fix it on his own.

"There's never a time people have to come to me and say, 'Do this, do that,' " Riley said.

Since moving into his off-campus Urbana apartment three years ago, Riley also has attacked the challenge of his budget. He eats the same food he grew up with in Jamaica — meat and potatoes, rice, poultry and fish — because it's healthy and cheap. One meal at Chipotle or Noodles may cost nearly $10, a price that could give him several meals at home. So Riley does nearly all his own dinner cooking. Tilapia and potatoes may only take 30 minutes to make, a tuna sandwich even less. Then there are times he gets ambitious.

He'll peel and slice a combination of yams — he's noticed that Americans call them sweet potatoes — and Idaho potatoes and put them in a pan with a chicken. The potatoes will have been marinating in a seasoning of all-purpose spice, black peppers and a little barbecue sauce. As the oven heats up, he'll boil water on the stove and pour in salt and garlic powder. To that he'll add kidney beans. He'll wash some rice and add that as well. He may add corn on the side, he may not. The meal takes about an hour to prepare either way — and it's a bargain.

Nearly all the time spent in his apartment involves eating, sleeping or watching sports on TV. He doesn't go out — which he finds synonymous with drinking — during the season. He may have a beer while watching TV (yes, Jamaica's Red Stripe is among his selection), but no more.

On most fall Saturdays, he'll get up at 7 a.m. and take a bus to the Arboretum, where he'll run for 20 minutes or so. The flat, grassy terrain is more accommodating than the ground of his solitary runs in Jamaica, where he lived on a hill so steep that he had to take taxis to school because buses couldn't make it up the incline. He would run down the hill and try his best to run back up, often taking an hour or more to do so.

The early-morning Saturday runs are much easier for him in every way except one. As the leaves change to a golden-orange, then fall off, and September moves into October, it starts getting chilly at 7 a.m. "The funny thing is that I'm not from here," he says. "Seven o'clock in the fall in November is pretty cold."

Yet a determined Andrew Riley is out there, cold or no cold.

Kevin Kaplan is a University of Illinois journalism student. This story was done in a version of Professor Walt Harrington's literary feature writing class that included students and News-Gazette staffers. Funding came from the Marajen Stevick Foundation.

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lmaran wrote on May 11, 2012 at 12:05 pm

That is a wonderfully sensitive and insightful writing on Mr. Riley. It is especially strking for me because as an American bird watching enthusiast I have special fascination with his country.As a long-time follower of Illini track and field I have been a proud Illini fan following Mr. Riley.


Here's to his continuing success in life. And GO ILLINI! at Madison, WI.