This summer in Rio, Richson Simeon ran the 100 meters at the Olympic Games. It was the same race, though not the same heat, that reconfirmed Jamaican Usain Bolt as “the fastest man in the world.”
Richson Simeon isn’t even the fastest man on his community college track team. His resume consists of three track meets.
"People I know, they’re like, 'Oh, yeah, I’m faster than this guy,' but it’s all cool," Simeon says. "I’m just happy to get to do what I got to do."
Simeon was in Rio thanks to the Olympic “universality” rule. It’s sort of a loophole that allows each participating country – in Simeon’s case, the Marshall Islands – to send two track athletes and two swimmers to every summer games. They don’t have to meet the qualifying times.
Finding An Athlete Abroad
There’s space in the Olympics for athletes from every country, but there’s no space on the Marshall Islands to build a regulation track and field facility — though Terry Sasser, secretary general for the Marshall Islands Olympic Committee, says one is in the works anyway.
"We don’t have enough land, so we’re going to have to do a reclamation to fill in some of the lagoon for half of the track and field," he says.
"There’s space in the Olympics for athletes from every country, but there’s no space on the Marshall Islands to build a regulation track and field facility."
The Marshall Islands, small and getting smaller as a result of climate change, only has a grass track now, and for the 2016 Games, Sasser and his colleagues had to look for an athlete who’d trained at something somewhere else.
"We were putting the word out there, as we always are, just to find athletes abroad," Sasser says. "We have free travel back and forth from the U.S., and so a lot of kids head to high school there, or university. We’d been tracking Richson while he was a football player in Sacramento."
Simeon’s parents are from the Marshall Islands. He grew up moving back and forth between there and the U.S. But Simeon wasn’t discovered during one of those visits. That happened when he made a YouTube video of his best football moves.
"I just posted on Facebook to share with family and friends," Simeon says.
"I said, man, that guy's got some breakaway speed," Sasser says. "And a couple of our athletes were hurt and injured. We’re, like, 'Wow. We might actually need this guy.' So we went for it."
Building An Olympic Sprinter
The Marshall Islands contacted Simeon to ask if he’d like to spend the next six months training to run the 100 meters in Rio.
Simeon wasn’t sure how to respond. He was a year and a half past his final high school season.
"I was, like, a little — like, I was out of shape," Simeon says. "And they were, like, ‘Yeah, you know, your football times were good’ and all that. And I was, like, ‘Oh. Yeah. About that…’"
No matter. The Marshall Islands Olympic Committee found a mentor for their aspiring sprinter. Rob Dewar is the head track coach at Sacramento Community College, just down the road from Simeon’s home.
"I didn’t know how fast he was going to be. I really didn’t," Dewar recalls. "I wasn’t expecting anything. I warned my athletes, I said, ‘I have this young man coming out. He’s new. And they’re training for the Olympic Games.’ So the kids were like, “Whoa, he’s fast.’ I was like, ‘Well, we’ll see.’"
What Dewar and his team saw was an inexperienced runner with everything to learn. What Simeon saw was how far he had to go to catch up with the better runners on a community college team.
"It was a humbling experience, but Richson's a very humble person," Dewar says. "And I just kept on telling him, ‘This is just day one. And just keep on coming back. You’ll become faster, and you’ll get better. But it’s gonna take some time. It’s not going to happen overnight.’ We got through the first day. I thought to myself, ‘If Richson can get through the first day, he can get through anything.’ And he did."
If that first day was hard, the first actual race in which Simeon competed was a lot harder.
"That first race, he just got demolished. I don’t mean to be so mean or anything, but he did. He forgot everything that we worked on through this whole time — form and how to come out of the blocks," Dewar says. "There’s basically, like, 55 different things you have to go through for 100 meters. I kept it to, like, four things for him, but he forgot about them. I took him to the side, and he was, like, ‘Whoa, that was just an experience I don’t want to go through again.’"
"I was kinda down for a while," Simeon says. "I was thinking in my head, ‘I’m going against the guys in the top level in the world. To go race with them, it was going to be a disaster.’"
"I try to work on my form, just to look good. At least if I’m going to lose, at least look good losing."
Simeon didn’t show up for practice the next day. Or the day after that. But eventually he came back. And when he did…he had a very simple goal.
"I try to work on my form, just to look good," he recalls. "At least if I’m going to lose, at least look good losing."
Terry Sasser and his committee on the Marshall Islands were supportive. Evidence of hard work and improvement were good enough for them.
A Small Fish In A Big Pond
And so after about six months of training and a trip to the Micronesian Games, his second track meet, ever, Simeon was off to Rio.
"Once he got on the plane he texts me. He’s like, ‘I’m getting nervous,’" Dewar says, "I’m like, ‘That’s good.’ There’s nothing else I could do for him."
Simeon wore a traditional Marshallese skirt in the Opening Ceremonies. But when I asked him what he’d remember most, it wasn’t the pomp and pageantry.
"When Usain Bolt was at the track, just team Jamaica, period, I was a little bit nervous. I was like, ‘Oh, these guys,'" Simeon recalls. "I was in lane three, and Usain Bolt and them, they were in lane five or six. I was setting up the blocks and I didn’t get to set it up all the way. And it was like, ‘One, two, three, get off.’ As soon as I went, the footing for the back foot, it goes flying off. And they’re, like, ‘Whoa.’ I turned around, and I started laughing. And they’re just looking at me, like, ‘Man.’ It was a good, little, funny moment we had."
"It’s a funny moment," I say, "but I wondered if you worried about whether they were thinking, ‘What is this guy doing here? He can’t even set the block.'"
"I talked to them a couple times. They were cool. I forget the name of the girl. She has green hair. We were just sitting there, talking. Seeing her on the big screen when we were at the track stadium, I was looking, I was, like, 'Wait, I talked to her, like, a couple days ago.' It was kinda cool."
Shrinking Islands, Future Races
Also cool was the opportunity to join athletes from other island nations in a campaign against climate change.
"Everybody’s talking about it," Simeon says. "In some parts of the islands, you see the effects of that. Some parts are flooded, and sea walls are being broken. Just to say something about it, it felt good."
And then…it was time to run.
"I’m like, 'Whoa. I’m about to run in the Olympics. And when I ran, it was just, ready, set, go. And I just ran, and afterwards it was like, 'Wait, that was it? Just 10 seconds?'”
More like 11.81 seconds. It was a personal best for Simeon, but last place in his heat, tied for last in the entire event, and a full two seconds behind Usain Bolt’s gold-medal time.
Coach Dewar did not make the trip to Rio, but he did see pictures of the race hours after it was over.
"Because I was not up at 5:30 a.m. — just being honest. Sorry about that, Richson," he says with a laugh. "I saw his foot was turned the wrong way and I was like, ‘Uh oh.’ That’s just experience. Because he’s a rookie. That’s his nickname, I believe. He’s going to get better and better, but he goes by 'Rookie.'"
The 'Rookie' will get better. He’s planning to continue training with Coach Dewar for the next two years. And if things go well, the Marshall Islands would like him to continue beyond that and set his sights on the Tokyo games.
"I know what to do to get faster now," Simeon says. "If I do get another chance to go back to the Olympics in 2020, I’m going to have more experience and a better time."
"I’m thinking the Jamaican runner with the green hair might be there, too," I say.
I don’t know if that was exactly a preview for the next Summer Games…but maybe we have given you an early rooting interest in that spectacle.
This segment aired on October 1, 2016.