South Carolina track coach Curtis Frye likes to say his recruiting philosophy has changed from picking the fruit off the tree to growing it, but he leaves little doubt in which category former Gamecock hurdler Jason Richardson belongs.
“I plucked him,” said, Frye who has also coached Olympic gold medalist Allen Johnson and two-time silver medalist Terrence Trammell in the 110 meter hurdles. “You hear people talk about recruits who are a five-star? He was a seven. It was a matter of trying not to mess it up.”
A former NCAA champion in the 110 meter hurdles (2008) while at South Carolina, Richardson enters this year’s Olympics in London as the defending world champion and a major contender in what is arguably the most formidable lineup in the history of the event.
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Cuba’s Dayron Robles is the 2008 gold medal winner and current world-record holder in the event with a time of 12.87.
China’s Liu Xiang is the 2004 gold medalist, a former world champion and equaled the world record earlier this year, although the time was listed as wind-aided.
Aries Merritt, a former Tennessee standout, has posted the fastest non-wind aided time in the event this year (12.93) on three occasions and bested Richardson at the U.S. Olympic trials.
“You’ve got four champions in that race and it’s a blink,” said Frye. “I think Jason’s toughness, his mental ability, gives him a little edge. I don’t know the rest of them, but I know how bright this guy is. He has everything analyzed and he can produce.”
Richardson’s best time this year is 12.98. He heads into the Olympics with the highest of hopes.
“I’m definitely going to shoot for the absolute best,” Richardson said in a press conference after finishing second to Merritt in the Herculis Athletics Meet in Monaco on July 20, the last major competition before the Olympics.
“I would love to run a world record and come home with the gold for America. I’m going to shoot for the planets and if that doesn’t work, I’ll fall amongst the moon. If that doesn’t work, I’ll fall amongst the stars. If that doesn’t work, I’ll fall on my face. But whatever it takes, I want to go out there and do my best. To make the (medalist) podium would be a blessing.”
A native of Dallas, Richardson grew up in Cedar Hill, Texas, where he excelled academically as well as athletically.
A member of the debate team, he represented Cedar Hill High School in a national competition.
Athletically, he discovered early that he had an aptitude for hurdling. In 2003 at the World Youth Championships in Sherbrooke, Canada, he won the gold medal in both the 110 meter and 400-meter hurdles. He was honored as Youth Athlete of the Year by USA Track and Field.
At South Carolina, he excelled at both the 60 meter hurdles and 110 meter hurdles. His career culminated with a gold medal at the 2008 NCAA Outdoor Championships his senior year.
It was while at South Carolina, between his sophomore and junior year, that he grew his now trademark dreadlocks.
“My head is really small and it’s shaped like a peanut,” Richardson said in a recent interview with NBC, “so I told myself I need to keep hair on my head at all times and I’ll cut it off when I stop being vain.”
The hairdo became a brief source of friction between Richardson and Frye.
“It was difficult,” Frye said. “It was a concern, because nobody was wearing dreadlocks. Jason has already been fashionable, but he and I wrestled over it a little bit. I’m old school and set in my ways, but the dreadlocks grew on me the faster he got.”
Richardson missed the 2008 Olympics because of a pulled hamstring. He turned pro in 2009.
Frye is convinced that this won’t be the last Olympics for Richardson, 26.
“Jason could get two more,” Frye said. “We’re going to see a lot of Jason Richardson. He could be carrying the Gamecock flag for a lot of years.”
An honors graduate from USC with a degree in sports and entertainment management, Richardson is undecided on what he wants to do after his track career ends.
“I would like to do nothing,” he joked in the NBC interview. “I would like to amass wealth and prestige and invest well enough that I could sit up in the house and eat Skittles until I figure out what else moves me in life.”
Whatever that turns out to be, Frye says the world will be better for it.
“He was a 4.0 student, graduated early, and he has chosen to concentrate on athletics,” Frye said. “The world’s loss was athletics’ gain. Jason Richardson has so much potential to do amazing things.
“He has a personality, a wit, a charm. Very handsome guy. He’s got it going on. A gold medal would put him in position to do special things. I can’t wait for Jason to hit it, because he’s going to do some things Carolina hasn’t seen before. He’s unique.”