Four years ago, Renaldo Nehemiah received a call from good friend and fellow Olympian, Harvey Glance, saying he had a diamond in the rough.
The gem, Grenadian Kirani James was a freshman at the University of Alabama where Glance – who equaled the world 100-metre record of 9.9 secs. twice in 1976 – was the head coach for 14 years up until 2011.
After retiring from track and field and football, Nehemiah turned to track and field management.
“Harvey told me this was just a freshman, but that he would keep me in the loop,” said Nehemiah, the first athlete to run the 110-metre hurdles in under 13 secs. and the world’s number one ranked high hurdler for four straight years. “The next year, Harvey called again with the news that James was ready to turn professional and he wanted me to manage him.”
The only Caribbean athlete in Nehemiah’s management stable, James has turned out to be everything Glance – a 1976 Olympic gold medalist who came out of retirement to prepare James for the London Games – predicted when he recruited him.
At last summer’s Olympics, the lanky 400-metre runner became the first Grenadian to win a gold medal for his country in a personal best 43.94 secs. American Michael Johnson holds the world record of 43.18 secs. set in 1999.
After being celebrated in his homeland, James is back in training in Alabama preparing for the world outdoor championships in Moscow in August. He will compete in his first race this season in the Bahamas on April 13.
“The outpouring of affection back home was just phenomenal and I enjoyed every moment of it,” said James, who was in Toronto last weekend with Nehemiah for a celebratory event organized by the Grenadian community in the Greater Toronto Area. “However, you are only as good as your last event and I am back at work preparing to win a gold medal in Moscow. That’s the goal this year.”
Among James’ competitors in the 400-metre semi-finals in London was South African Oscar Pistorius, who was making history as the first double amputee to participate in the Olympics.
After winning the race, James embraced Pistorius – who finished last – and asked to exchange bibs with their names.
“For me, he was an inspiration by just going out there and competing at a high level even though he has a disability,” said James. “It was a case of someone making the best of his situation and I admired and respected him.”
James said he was shocked when a roommate in Alabama, where he is based, texted him early last Valentine’s Day to say Pistorius was accused of murdering his girlfriend.
“I thought he was playing a joke, but when I turned on the TV, it was all over the news,” said James, who won a gold medal at the last world outdoor championship in Daegu two years ago. “I was just as shocked as most people because I really did not see that coming. All we can do now is pray for him and the family of the deceased.”
As he prepares to defend his world outdoor title, James reflected on his association with Glance and Nehemiah.
“Harvey was the main reason I went to Alabama,” said James, who also visited Florida State University and the University of South Carolina. “What you see with Harvey is what you get. He’s very genuine and I have learned a lot from him. What I like most about Renaldo is that he teaches me the business of track and field.”
Nehemiah said that “Team Kirani”, which also includes James’ parents, who are yet to travel overseas to see their son compete at a major championship, are committed to ensuring that he’s successful on and off the track.
“I present the schedule and he and his coach will draw up their goals and objectives,” he said. “The ultimate goal this year is to win a gold medal in Moscow, but how they get there is up to Kirani and Harvey. Everybody wants Kirani at their meet, so he has choices. The good thing about him is that he’s not in this just for the money. National pride means everything to him. It has been a joy working with Kirani because he’s very focused. When we are at meets, he would attend his press conferences, come out for dinner and spent most of his spare time watching soccer on TV in his hotel room.”
The first athlete to clinch gold medals in the 200- and 400-metre double at the 2009 world youth championships, James brushed aside suggestions he will attempt to regularly compete in both events.
“If I do a 200, it will be for fun,” said the one-lapper, whose personal best in the event is 20.41 secs. “That’s all. My focus is on the 400 and that’s the way it’s going to be.”
James is the first Caribbean athlete to win a 400-metre Olympic gold medal since late Jamaican, Arthur Wint, achieved the feat at the 1948 London Games.
Other Grenadian 2012 Olympians honoured at last Saturday night’s event were Nova Southeastern University swimmer, Esau Simpson, who was 43rd in the 100-metre freestyle heats; Bay St. lawyer, Andrea St. Bernard, who lost both of her taekwondo matches against eventual Olympic silver medalist Nur Tatar of Turkey and American Paige McPherson, who captured the bronze medal and sprinter, Janelle Redhead.