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After four near-misses, USC's Richardson eyes gold

Jason Richardson credits a nagging hamstring injury that sidelined him last season with giving him a new outlook on training.
Jason Richardson credits a nagging hamstring injury that sidelined him last season with giving him a new outlook on training.

Jason Richardson is bright, articulate and not one to spout off cliches.

So when the South Carolina hurdler caught himself trotting out a hackneyed phrase during a recent interview, he stopped and essentially apologized. A visitor used the moment to lob a cliche back at Richardson, asking the senior if he was familiar with the “once a bridesmaid, never a bride” expression.

Richardson smiled and settled back in his seat, aware that he has at least one more chance to get to the altar.

After four top-three finishes at NCAA championship events, Richardson is going for his first gold this week at the NCAA Outdoor Championships on Drake’s campus in Des Moines, Iowa.

Richardson, a senior from Cedar Hill, Texas, enters as the favorite in the 110-meter high hurdles. He is undefeated against collegians in the event and has the year’s top time: a clocking of 13.21 seconds that broke the NCAA East Region record and was two-hundredths of a second off Terrence Trammell’s school record.

So is this the year Richardson finally climbs to the top of the medal stand?

“I’m definitely ready,” he said.

Track observers figured Richardson would have a closet full of gold medals by now. He arrived at USC nearly four years ago as Gatorade’s national track athlete of the year, boasting the third-fastest time run by a high school athlete in the 400-meter hurdles.

But injuries and several near misses have prevented Richardson from shedding the label as USC’s Best Runner Never to Win at the NCAAs.

“I’ve had a great career here,” he said. “A lot of people fail to realize that greatness is not a privilege. It’s something you have to earn. You may be great in high school, but it doesn’t necessarily correlate to being great in college.”

It took Richardson a couple of years to realize his natural athleticism was not enough to succeed at track’s highest level. A recurring hamstring injury that sidelined him for the outdoor season last year gave Richardson a new outlook on training.

“It forced me to evaluate how much I love track and how much I was willing to give to keep my livelihood in the sport going,” he said.

Besides stretching, Richardson is more mindful of staying hydrated, doing cool-down runs and taking ice baths. The result: Richardson has stayed healthy and posted the best times of his career.

At the NCAA Indoor Championships in March, Richardson narrowly missed winning the 60-meter hurdles when he and Florida State’s Drew Brunson finished in a virtual heat. Officials determined Brunson crossed the line three-thousandths of a second before Richardson.

But Richardson has been unbeatable since, leading to speculation he will turn pro this summer after either the NCAAs or the U.S. Olympic Trials. As a result of his redshirt year in 2007, Richardson has one season of both indoor and outdoor eligibility remaining.

Richardson, who graduated in May with a 3.4 grade-point average in sport and entertainment management, said his focus remains on the task at hand this week in Iowa.

“When I’m at nationals, it’s all about nationals,” he said. “It’s not about turning pro. It’s not about next year and what I’m going to do for the team. It’s not about the Olympic Trials. It’s not about Beijing. It’s about carpe diem.”

Gamecocks coach Curtis Frye said most of his runners who turned pro with eligibility remaining had created a lasting “memory” either by winning an NCAA individual title or setting national or school records.

“There’s some expectations of a person who leaves college early,” said Frye, who saw NCAA-champion sprinters Shalonda Solomon and Natasha Hastings turn pro early last year.

After watching Richardson come painfully close to achieving one of those milestones, Frye said the time could be right for Richardson’s signature moment.

“He can do some of those things the next three weeks,” Frye said.

And be a bridesmaid no more.

Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.