Riley got running start on his career
CHAMPAIGN — The original plan was for Andrew Riley to compete in the multi-events in college.
That, after all, was what first attracted the University of Illinois track and field coaching staff to the Kingston, Jamaica, native. In his homeland, Riley was Mr. Versatility in track and field — a two-time junior national champion in the heptathlon.
Just one problem. He had virtually no experience in the pole vault, one of the events in the NCAA indoor and outdoor multi-events. In Jamaica, no vaulting is required in the heptathlon on the junior level.
"Instead, they throw the javelin," Illini coach Mike Turk said.
Under other circumstances, that variation might have been no impediment to Riley's transition to the U.S. collegiate heptathlon (indoors) and decathlon (outdoors).
To this day, Turk believes that Riley — given his prodigious physical talents and fierce competitive drive — could have become proficient enough in the pole vault to otherwise thrive in the NCAA multi-events.
"This kid's special," Turk said after a recent practice at the UI Track and Soccer Stadium. "He could be a national champion in the decathlon some day. That's kind of what we thought at the time."
At the time Riley was being recruited, that is. The timing of his arrival in Champaign forced a change of plans. A mid-year enrollee, Riley entered the UI in January 2009. With the Illini's indoor season already upon them, there was no time to try to get the then-freshman up to speed in the pole vault. Instead, then-UI head coach Wayne Angel and his staff needed the three-time Jamaica junior national champion — he also owned a title in the high jump — to hit the ground running. And that meant competing in the hurdles and sprints.
Illini track fans know how that turned out.
Riley is a two-time NCAA champion in the hurdles. He has broken and re-set school records in the 60- and 110-meter hurdles at a dizzying rate dating back to his freshman season. And he will enter his final NCAA championship meet this week in Des Moines, Iowa, as one of the top contenders not only in the 110-meter hurdles but in the open 100 meters as well.
"He's one of the upper one percent," Turk said. "He's got an inner drive and a vision and a focus that very few people have in life in any endeavor."
Perhaps Riley's collegiate career would have turned out the same had he arrived one semester earlier. Perhaps his potential in the hurdles would have become so apparent, even if he'd originally competed in the multi-events, that Riley inevitably would have transitioned to what is now his signature event.
"If I could have vaulted, I don't know what I would have been here," he said.
Certainly, Riley has no reason to regret the early twists and turns his Illini track career took. By the end of his freshman season, he already was a two-time All-American. By then, Riley also was the fastest Illini in history in both events.
It's what separates Riley from most other hurdlers — collegiate or pro. It's what has the nine-time All-American currently ranked 14th in the world in the 110 hurdles.
"His raw speed is as good as any other hurdler in the world," Turk said. "And I think that's the thing most of the other hurdlers just can't compete (with) at that level. The difference between national-level hurdlers and national-level 100-meter guys in their foot speed is pretty big."
After winning his first Big Ten title in the open 100 this spring, Riley broke an 18-year-old school record in the same event while finishing first at the NCAA West Preliminary Round on May 25. His time, 10.03 seconds, ranked No. 1 nationally in the NCAA Preliminary Rounds. Only Florida's Jeff Demps — the 2010 NCAA champion in the 100 — has run faster this spring (10.01) among collegiate athletes.
Considering that Riley never ran faster than 10.8 in high school, his progress in the open 100 has been eye-opening.
"If you get 10.8, you won't even get a scholarship (offer) for nowhere in the States," Riley said. "To come here and in 3 1/2 years to be running (this) fast, there's something good about a program here, so I'm very happy for that."
Riley is positioned to take a realistic shot at a history-making feat this week. If the two-time Big Ten Track Athlete of the Year can win both the 110 hurdles and open 100, he would be the first ever to sweep those two events (including the predecessor 120 hurdles) in the NCAA Outdoor Championships.
It doesn't hurt Riley's chances, either, that Demps isn't in the national field. The senior and U.S. Olympic hopeful aggravated a hamstring injury in his first 100-meter race at the NCAA East Preliminary Round. At that point, the Florida coaching and medical staff huddled and decided to withdraw Demps from the meet.
Riley, who will be running the open 100 at nationals for the first time in his career, is eager to take his shot at this historic double.
"You always want to challenge yourself," the 11-time Big Ten champion said. "You always want to be different from everybody else, set a different standard for yourself. ... Every track meet, I keep getting faster so that gives me confidence to do it."
Certainly, it figures to be highly challenging. There must be a reason, after all, that no one ever has achieved this particular double.
"It's a real hard double," Turk said. "And he's trying something he's never tried before (at nationals)."
Add in the fact the fact that Riley also is a key member of the Illini's 400 relay team, and he could end up running as many as six races in a four-day span if he reaches the finals in all three events.
In Riley's favor is the fact he experienced a similarly busy itinerary at the NCAA West Preliminary Round in Austin, Texas, where he ran five times in three days. The difference, of course, is the competition will only get tougher in Des Moines.
"He's got to run a lot of races, and he's got to run a lot of races at a very high level," Turk said. "(The West Preliminary Round) was a little bit of a dress rehearsal, and I thought he did a great job of that."
Riley understands that this workload could impact his chances in his signature event. Entering his final NCAA championship meet, Riley's primary individual goal is to climb to the top of the medals podium in the hurdles. It's a place he hasn't reached since winning the 60 hurdles at the 2011 NCAA indoor meet.
"It's definitely going to be taxing on my body," he said. "I know ... it's going to be very rough. You've just got to stay focused and to execute each race and each round at a time."
However this double-championship quest turns out, Turk knows what to expect from his two-time NCAA champion.
"If you seem him win, you're going to see him flash that big smile and wave up to us in the stands," the Illini coach said. "And if he loses, he'll hold his head up and walk off the track. That's how Andrew handles this."
Turk can't guarantee he'll be nearly as composed, especially when his star is flashing toward the finish line.
"We'll all be sitting on the edge of our seat throughout the weekend, I'm sure," he said.
NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships at a glance:
WHERE: Drake Stadium at Des Moines, Iowa
Men — Stanley Azie (100, 200); Kyle Engnell (3,000 steeplechase); Andrew Riley (100, 110 hurdles); 400 relay (Riley, Brandon Stryganek, D.J. Zahn and Azie with alternates Jade Ackerman, Josh Zinzer)
Women — Breeana Coleman (100 hurdles); Jesica Ejesieme (400 hurdles); Ashley Spencer (400); 1,600 relay (Ashley Kelly, Ryisha Boyd, Latoya Griffith and Spencer with alternates Ejesieme, Marissa Golliday)
TV: noon Saturday on ESPNU
ONLINE: Streamed live for free on NCAA.com (today) and on ESPN3.com (Thursday-Saturday).