"I am hoping it is not a dream," said Jereem Richards, shortly after waking up to the reality of a bronze medal over 200m at the IAAF World Championships London 2017.
The sprint sensation from Trinidad and Tobago finished a surprising third in the 200m final in what was his first appearance at the IAAF World Championships, following in the footsteps of his illustrious compatriot Ato Boldon, who was the last sprinter from the Caribbean island to win a 200m medal, gold in Athens 20 years ago.
Richards shared the same time of 20.11 with Olympic and double 400m world champion Wayde van Niekerk behind surprising world champion Ramil Guliyev on a Thursday night marked by upset results in the London Stadium.
He started his dream week by setting the fastest time in the heats of 20.05 and went on to clock a solid 20.14 in the semi-final in torrential rain, marking himself out as a serious contender for a medal.
"It was one of the best results ever," he said. "All season I worked hard. I wanted to represent Trinidad and Tobago at a major championship. I can’t explain what I am feeling. There is much emotion to get a medal. This is something I have been dreaming about for my whole life."
Keeping his head
Richards recovered from a bad start in the final and looked not to be in contention for a medal when he came off the bend.
"I had a bad start. I stumbled coming out of the blocks but I tried not to let it affect me. I still tried to stay relaxed. At the turn I wasn’t in contention really, so to get a medal from there is a great achievement. Going into the straight, I glanced up and I saw I was fourth or fifth. It was time to go. I did not realise that it was so close."
The 23-year-old student at the University of Alabama started the busy collegiate season with a personal best of 20.58 and made a breakthrough at the NCAA Indoor Championships in College Station when he clocked 20.31 in his first season with Alabama after transferring from South Plains College in Levelland, Texas.
Outdoors he finished third at the Southeastern Conference Championships in 20.22 behind London 100m world silver medallist Christian Coleman and Great Britain’s Nethaneel Mitchell Blake (fourth in the London World Championships final in London in 20.24) in a a very competitive race after running a wind-assisted 19.98 in the heats.
Richards then continued his NCAA Collegiate season with an impressive 19.97 in the 200m in Lexington on 27th May and finished third at the NCAA Championships in Eugene over 200m in 20.55 against a strong 3.1m/s headwind. At the end of June Richards also won his national 200m title in 20.15 against a 1.0m/s headwind in Port of Spain. Earlier this year he also set a personal best of 45.47 in the 400m in Baton Rouge.
Richards hails from Point Fortin in Trinidad and Tobago. Like many of his compatriots, he played football and cricket at the start of his sports career but realised soon that he was more talented at sprinting.
He started his career as a 400m athlete and made his debut on the international stage in 2012 when he won bronze in the 4x400m at the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Istanbul with teammates Lalonde Gordon, Renny Quow and Jarrin Solomon, setting a national indoor record of 3:06.05. Later in the same year he world U20 bronze in the 4x400m in Barcelona.
"My dad played football, my mother was an athlete," he recalled. "I started my athletics career at the age of eight at primary school. I tried football and cricket, but I was not very talented in these sports when I was young. Track and field was really my only sport as I am better in individual sports.
"I had a trial to see who could run and represent the school and I was one of the fastest kids there. That is what pulled me to track and field. I made the choice to go the United States to get an education and run against some of the best athletes in the world. I made the transition from South Plains College, as my coach Blaine Wiley moved to Alabama, where we have the best facilities."
He travelled to Rio de Janeiro as an alternate for the 4x400m but he did not compete there.
"The Olympic Games were a great experience," he said. "Just being there made me hungry. I got to see big athletes like Usain Bolt. It sparked something inside of me that I could be up there at the same level as these guys. I want to compete at the next Olympics and I cannot wait."
Richards is one of the just four athletes in the history of the Alabama University to win a medal at the World Championships after Calvin Smith, Clive Wright and Kirani James.
He dedicated his first individual medal to his mother after making a lap of honour with Trinidad and Tobago’s flag on his shoulders.
"This means a lot to me," he said. "I wanted to bring a medal to my country for my mother. She did everything for me. I am happy I could take her the bronze. Words alone can’t explain how grateful I am in this moment and how lucky I am to compete here."
Former US 100m legend Maurice Greene picked Richards as a potential medallist on the eve of the 200m final.
"I was not sure that Greene knew about me. It’s a big honour," commented Richards.
Richards entered as the "underdog" against such big stars like sub-20 sprinters Wayde van Niekerk and Isaac Makwala but lived up to his reputation as one of the biggest sprint of the future.
"I have been relaxed amongst so many professional athletes, the greatest stars of all time," he said. "Hopefully it means a lot for me over the next few years. I still feel like I am dreaming. I hope I don’t wake up."
Diego Sampaolo for the IAAF