Riley makes history
DES MOINES, Iowa — Andrew Riley wasn't nearly at his fastest. A headwind of 3.5 mph undoubtedly had something to do with that.
Still, the greatest hurdler in University of Illinois men's track and field history was fast enough Saturday at Drake Stadium to complete a historic feat.
One day after becoming the first Illini in 58 years to win an NCAA title in the 100 meters, Riley captured the 110 hurdles crown. No athlete in the history of the NCAA Outdoor Championships, which dates back to 1921, had ever swept those events in the same year.
"When I started out this year it was something I wanted to achieve," the Illini senior said. "I always set high goals for myself. This year, I really wanted to be the first to do the double.
"A lot of hurdlers don't like to do the track work. I like the track work. It takes different technique to do the double."
Two days earlier, Riley ran the second-fastest time of his career in the 110 hurdles — 13.30 seconds in the semifinals. Only Texas A&M junior Wayne Davis II, running in another heat, was faster at 13.26.
With a title at stake, Saturday's race came down to those top two seeds. Although Riley's time of 13.53 was only his sixth fastest of the season in his signature event, it was fast enough to edge runner-up Davis by 0.07 second.
Fast enough, too, for Riley to prove his fourth-place finish in the 60 hurdles at the 2012 NCAA Indoor Championships was an aberration.
"He got out of the blocks great and it looked like he had a little trouble over the second hurdle," Illinois coach Mike Turk said. "I think he learned from his mistake at the indoor championships because he kept his focus and composure.
"From the fourth hurdle on, there was no doubt in my mind. He was just too determined."
Riley captured his fourth NCAA title — and second in the 110 hurdles — with Saturday's win. That ties the Kingston, Jamaica, native for the most national crowns in program history. Sprinter Herb McKenley and jumper Charlton Ehizuelen also were four-time NCAA champions.
But it was Riley's double that grabbed everyone's attention Saturday. And perhaps no one appreciated Riley's historic breakthrough more than his hurdles/sprints coach.
"It was amazing," said UI women's head coach Tonja Buford-Bailey, whose credentials include an Olympic bronze medal in the 400 hurdles and a 1992 NCAA title in the same event as an Illini. "To win both is unbelievable and is huge for Illinois. He did something that no one else in the NCAA has done, so it's big for Illinois.
"He's one of the most disciplined athletes I know. It's deserving. It's very rewarding."
In the end, Riley single-handedly lifted Illinois to a share of 11th place in the final team standings. All 20 of the Illini's points were produced by his two wins.
It was the team's highest finish in the NCAA Outdoor Championships since 1988, when Illinois placed seventh.
"Overall we fell short of our team goal of finishing in the top 10," Turk said, "but I couldn't be more proud of our team. I guess the bar is set for next year's team to make a run at the top 10."
The team's finish in the standings was a mild disappointment compared to what happened in the first track event of the day. An Illini 400 relay team that had run the third-fastest time in school history in the semifinals was unable even to finish in the finals.
The Illini were running in the pack near the front when the baton was dropped on the last exchange between freshman D.J. Zahn and senior Stanley Azie. Even Riley, who ran the first leg, was powerless to rescue his team this time.
"It was crushing to our squad," Turk said. "We were in good position and we just didn't execute. It's really a shame because everyone worked so hard and it means a lot.
"Like I told our guys, from failure and disappointment comes challenge and opportunity. We'll work harder than ever to get back and prove ourselves in the final next year."
The next Illini team will have to do so without 11-time All-American Riley, who now will turn his attention to the Olympic Trials in his homeland later this month.
Don't expect him to attempt another double there. With Jamaican sprinters like Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake and Asafa Powell — the current top three in the world in the 100 meters — Riley plans to stick to the hurdles.
"In Jamaica, you've got like 10 guys running 9 (seconds in the 100), so there's no way for me to try to kill myself to even run the 100," he said after a recent practice before heading to his final NCAA meet. "I have to bring my A Game to the Trials and hopefully I get a spot (on the Olympic team). I know my chances are high, but I'm not going to get overconfident."