Trinidad and Tobago’s Jereem Richards might be a world championship medallist, but the 23-year-old has a greater achievement than that.
For someone who came out of the IAAF World Championships in London with an individual and a relay medal, Trinidad and Tobago’s Jereem Richards is incredibly down to earth. As we sit down to reflect on his career so far, the 23-year-old’s answer as to what his greatest achievement to date is comes as a surprise: “passing college Algebra.”
Not his 4x400m relay gold, not the bronze he won in the 200m, but maths.
SPIKES asks him to elaborate.
“I learnt that maths is a subject that you really need to practise. It’s kind of like track. You practise a lot, you’re going to perfect it at some point, or at least you’re going to get better.
“In maths, you can’t just jump into it and be good. You have to remember the formulas, and you have to practise so it stays in your brain because it’s based on memory. I practised a lot, and I got better, I passed my final and I passed the class – a C, but I passed. And that is my greatest achievement in life, because I was really struggling. It taught me that if you really put your mind to it, you can achieve anything.”
Richards attended South Plains College before transferring to the University of Alabama in his senior year. Alabama has a reputation for producing stellar sprinters. Alumni include 2012 Olympic 400m champion Kirani James, former 100m world record holder Calvin Smith and Bahamian track legend Pauline Davis-Thompson. The bar for the transfer was set high and he had his work cut out.
“I had this white board in my room where I wrote down some of my goals for 2017,” Richards explains. Those goals included conference, national and international medals. He quickly ticked off the first two, winning the 200m indoor Southeastern Conference Championships title in 20.34, then outdoor SEC and NCAA 200m bronze (20.22 and 20.55 respectively). He went to the IAAF World Championships in London with one more item on his to do list: a world championship medal.
He entered the championships as an underdog; all eyes were on the drama that unfolded between 400m world record holder Wayde van Niekerk and Botswana’s Isaac Makwala, who after being sidelined for the 400m due a bout of Norovirus was hoping for redemption in the 200m. Richards remained unfazed by the distractions. He didn’t even experience any of his usual pre-race jitters.
“I remember a conversation with my coach [Blaine Wiley] before the heats,” recalls Richards.
“‘Coach Wiley, am I supposed to be nervous? Because I’m not.’
‘You’re not nervous?’
‘Well that’s good, it means you’re ready.’”
And ready he was. He clocked the fastest qualifying time in the heats with 20.05 and cruised into the final with 20.14. People began to notice the Trinidadian. His college teammate, British 1500m runner Robbie Farnham-Rose, kept an eye on his friend’s odds on betting websites as he progressed through the rounds.
“He was like ‘before the heats you were nowhere on these lists’,” Richards recalls . “After the heats I was like second favourite to win. And then after my semi-final he showed it to me again and he was like ‘yo, everyone’s betting on you to win this race’ and I was just trying not to give myself too much pressure.”
As he toed the line in the final, there was no sign of nerves. Calm and collected around the bend, he came through strongly over the final metres and was rewarded with the bronze medal behind Turkey’s Ramil Guliyev, the surprise winner, and van Niekerk. Meanwhile, his nearest and dearest were struggling.
Following his 20.11 bronze run Coach Wiley admitted to his protégé: “Man, I couldn’t sleep all night. I was up at 5am in the morning just thinking about that race.”
And coach wasn’t the only one getting antsy. “Even my sister, she told me she threw up! She threw up before the race,” laughs Richards. “I think God probably took my nerves and gave them to everyone else around me, because I wasn’t nervous at all. I think it was the most relaxing meet for me.”
Though he had achieved his goals for the year, Richards wasn’t done yet. His world championships experience was topped off with a thrilling 4x400m final, where Trinidad and Tobago upstaged reigning champions the USA to take gold in a national record 2:58.12.
The 200m man’s second leg effort of 43.5 was the joint-fastest split of the entire race. Still, he prefers the 200 to the 400m.
“I don’t like how I feel after a 400m, it is so much pain and so long,” he admits. However, he knows it is where he gets his strength for the shorter distance from. With two major global medals under his belt, Richards is entering 2018 brimming with confidence.
“To be able to cross off your goals one after another made me tell myself ‘whatever you’re doing, you’re doing it right’,” he explains. “To get the bronze medal in London, it was the best experience ever. I would say the bronze is the most valuable medal for me personally because I did it by myself – well not by myself, with coach of course.”
Now his eyes are on the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in April. During his first Commonwealth outing, in 2014, things didn’t go according to plan. Now, having just graduated with a degree in Human Environmental Sciences and his first shoe contract with adidas signed, he can fully focus on life as a pro.
“My first Commonwealth Games was in 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland. 20.5 was my personal best that year, I ran 21, got knocked out the first rounds,” he recalls. This year, he is confident to “make a mark” at the Games come April.
Either way, no matter how many more successes Richards will celebrate on the track, one thing is certain: “I always told myself that when I have kids, and they ask me ‘daddy, what’s your greatest achievement in life?’ I am still going to say ‘passing college Algebra’ because it really wasn’t easy for me. It taught me a lot about myself as a person and set me up for everything else I have achieved and am yet to achieve in life.”
Words: Michelle Sammet