old Jason Richardson realised an unprecedented 110m Hurdles / 400m Hurdles double to steal the show at the IAAF World Youth Championships in Sherbrooke, Canada. Jill Stephens spoke to the young man whose future looks bright on and off the track
The saying goes ‘a healthy body equals a healthy mind’ and for no athlete is that more appropriate than double world youth champion Jason Richardson.
For not only did the 17-year-old American create history earlier this year, by becoming the first global winner of both the 110m Hurdles and 400m Hurdles at the same championship, he also possesses a rare intellect, which has attracted the interest of Havard University - the world famous higher-education institution.
Richardson personifies excellence both on and off the track, and his polite manner and articulate nature represents a glowing example to other budding young athletes.
The willowy American caused a minor tremor in the track and field world in July by securing an unprecedented and improbable 110m Hurdles and 400m Hurdles double at the third IAAF World Youth Championships in Sherbrooke, Canada.
His languid, smooth hurdling technique was a joy to watch, as he successfully negotiated five races in three days and just a 45-minute gap between his 400m Hurdles semi-final and 110m Hurdles final.
He also achieved impressive world leading times of 13.29 (110m Hurdles) and 49.91 (400m Hurdles) to announce his arrival as a precocious new talent.
Yet, Richardson is not one to beat his chest in triumph or brag about his physical accomplishments. A modest teenager, Richardson explains: “I’m not concerned with winning, it is not a burden for me. I just run my way. If I win it doesn’t change anything. Winning two gold medals in Sherbrooke didn’t define my happiness, it just added to my happiness.”
To Richardson, from the Texan city of Cedar Hill near Dallas, track is fun and that’s the way it always should be.
From a family of academics, sport has never been an all-encompassing part of the teenager’s life and his balanced up bringing has undoubtedly contributed to his refreshing outlook on track and field.
He admits his father, Charles, a civil engineer, and mother, Sandra, a secretary, were ‘not as supportive early on’ to his passion for track and field as some families. But he adds: “They did not indoctrinate me with their view and over time they have become extremely supportive. A lot of people call us the ‘Cosby family’ (after the legendary American TV family), and like the Cosby family we are both serious and fun.”
Richardson’s earliest memories of running came in his local neighbourhood when the older children used to regularly out-sprint him. But it wasn’t only the local boys who would show a clean pair of heels to the youngster, his older sisters, Shavonne and Shayna, were also much quicker.
“I didn’t have an innate sense of speed as a youngster,” said Richardson.
Indeed, it was only in seventh grade (aged 12) that he first tried hurdling – and it was a discipline which clearly suited.
“I kind of mimicked what I saw on TV,” he said of learning to hurdle. “I learned how to swim just by watching the TV and the hurdles was the same.”
Yet track glory was not the main motivation for taking up the hurdles.
“I was never into sports before seventh-grade,” he explained. “But I took up track as a means for getting a free college scholarship.”
Indeed, for Richardson, his intellectual development is equally as important as his physical accomplishments. An exceptionally bright, articulate student in his final year at high school, he is also one of America’s finest young debaters.
US Schools take great pride in their national debating competitions, in which entrants study a range of topics for two months and discuss the subject matter in a ‘controlled argument’ for 45 minutes.
Richardson has featured in national debating competitions and believes the experience can only stand him in good stead on the track.
“Debating definitely helps my athletics,” he says, “it allows me to be mentally controlled on the track. It’s heavy-duty thinking. I don’t have to slap my face to get myself up for a competition. I think it’s important to be sharp mentally and physically. I want to be one of those guys running around a track aged 90 with a sharp mind.”
Nonetheless, he occasionally wishes the objectivity of athletics could be applied to the subjective nature of debate voting.
“I sometimes think I should have scored higher in debating competitions and thought, I wish this could be marked like athletics. But,” he adds with a sigh, “debating is inherently subjective.”
However, due to track demands allied to his study requirements in his final year at Cedar Hill High School, he plans to devote less time to debate in the future.
Coached by Sandra Mitchell, his ‘support system,’ the articulate teenager surprisingly admits to having no formal hurdling training, but holds Mitchell in the highest regard. “No coach would have supported me like Sandra,” he explained, “she has nurtured my ability.”
Richardson admits to training only two or three times a week yet his success has been a relatively recent phenomenon with his ‘breakthrough’ coming at the 2002 Texan State Championships, where he placed second in both the 110m Hurdles and 400m Hurdles.
His height, he stands at 6ft 1ins, has produced a relaxed, languid hurdling style – but it is certainly effective. In both world youth finals he trailed the leader with two hurdles remaining but his natural speed and strength took him to the gold medal.
Texas is, of course, the home of a plentiful supply of international track and field talent, including world 200m and 400m record-holder Michael Johnson. But, although respecting the performances of the likes of Johnson, he adds: “I wouldn’t say I have any heroes in the sport. I don’t really admire or cannot form an emotional attachment with someone I don’t know personally.” But he added: “It was fantastic to see America finish one-two-four-five in the high hurdles at the World Championships.”
Pencil thin – Richardson also uses his physique as a motivation for victory. And he comes from the school of training employed successfully by Kim Collins, the world 100m champion. For, like Collins, Richardson does no weight training and takes no vitamin supplements.
So, are the likes of Collins and Richardson re-defining the template to succeed?
“Thin to win,” said Richardson, chuckling at his quip. “I see people training extremely hard going to the weights room but I don’t like to lift weights,” he added. “I’m not even into Powerbars,” before giggling, “I did eat quite a few in Canada, they were just like a candy bar.”
“I raced over 100m in the summer and I was laughing at my rivals with their massive necks bugling with muscle, they looked really angry when they ran. Running is supposed to be fun. I enjoy running and beating the big guys.”
Acutely aware of the United States current global image, he also hopes his double gold-medal winning success in Canada could have helped convey a more positive perception of his homeland.
But what of the future for this raw, exciting talent?
“I hope to step up my propensity to train more and go to practice more,” added Richardson, before admitting, with a hint of contradiction, “It will still be the same (training) two or three times a week.”
He plans to compete during the indoor season but his main goal is next July’s World Junior Championships in Italy, where he plans to once again go for double hurdles glory.
“I always preferred the 110m Hurdles but I have garnered much of my success in the 400m Hurdles and that has shifted my perspective,” he explained. “A lot of people have spoken out against running both the 110m Hurdles and 400m Hurdles but I aim to prove it is as feasible as running the 100m and 200m.”
However, as you might expect, setting solely track goals is far from the limit of his ambition and Richardson also harbours a desire to combine a successful athletics career with a law career.
“I have two goals in life, one, to be an Olympian, and secondly to be a lawyer,” he added matter-of-factly. “To do both would be utopia.”
However, despite Havard’s reported interest, Richardson has revealed a preference to study Law at Tulane University in New Orleans.
Richardson was unquestionably one of the big stars of the third IAAF World Youth Championships but he says his life has remained unaffected by his success, and one suspects this to be true.
Richardson says other than a handful of his close friends and family in Cedar Hill, few are aware of his track and field achievements. Yet if he continues to make progress on the track his stock within the Texan city will soar.
When asked what is Cedar Hill famous for? Richardson pauses, before answering: ‘Bonnie and Clyde robbed a bank here.’ You get the feeling a much sounder investment in the cities dubious heritage can be found by way of its articulate and engaging double world hurdles champion, rather than the notorious 1930s gangsters.
Jill Stephens is a freelance journalist based in the United Kingdom
Published in IAAF Magazine Issue 4 - 2003