Brijesh Lawrence is both collegian and Olympian
September 25, 2012
Every single school day, Brijesh Lawrence met up with the kids on his block and raced to Beach Allen Primary School. They ran full out, the way little kids do, in a giggling, bantering pack that cared more about running together than who won. Brijesh ran everywhere on the tiny island of Saint Kitts and Nevis; running came effortlessly, innately, "like it was just what I was meant to do," he said.
One expects to hear that he rose directly to the heights he has achieved at age 22: a World Championship bronze medalist who ran against Usain Bolt, a Pan-Am Games silver medalist, a multiple National Intercollegiate Athletics Association (NAIA) champion and All-American, a 2012 Olympic qualifier and the 6th fastest man in the world based on some times posted last spring.
One assumes that he trained year-round and left broken records in his wake. In reality, he gave up running several times over the years, then picked it up again, like others retrieve a lost sweater from the bedroom floor.
Brijesh moved to Omaha and left his childhood running buddies behind. He tried football before track. He left athletics, worked at a bank and became a couch potato, weighing in at 240 pounds. Doane is the fourth college on his transcripts, helping him along his path from college campus to Olympic Village.
His ability is something he took for granted at times and came close to wasting, said Brijesh, which is why he makes time to talk to students in elementary and secondary schools, especially his alma mater of Omaha Northwest.
"I talk with them about staying in school, treating their elders and teachers and teammates right; about learning a work ethic that's going to get them somewhere," said Brijesh, who studies business administration at Doane. "I tell them my story to say: ‘You don't know if you don't try.'"
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Brijesh's family moved to Omaha when he was 8, seeking a better education for him and his sister. Talk about a culture shock. "I hadn't even ridden in a car until I came up here. I had never experienced the whole cold thing. I came up in shorts and a T-shirt three days before Halloween and it was snowing."
He missed warm; missed the Caribbean's laid-back pace, missed standing in the solitude of the rainforest, watching the sea.
That was the first time he stopped running. He didn't know Nebraska and he didn't know track. Coming from a family of cricket and soccer athletes, he took up football.
When he eventually did try track, he set a freshman school record in the 100-meters. Still, he picked football at graduation, enrolling at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. After a red-shirt year and an injury, he quit.
"I just decided to be done with sports for a while."
He transferred to Metro Community College of Omaha and took a break from almost everything.
"I worked at a bank and went to school and ate ‘til I got fat," he says, matter-of-factly, shaking his head at the memory. "I didn't train, didn't exercise." Soon, he weighed 240 pounds and couldn't remember what running felt like.
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Like most of the transformative moments in his life, the journey back to college athlete began with a phone call from a coach. His former high school coach had a coaching position at the now defunct Dana College. Brijesh transferred to Dana to play football and run track and lost 45 pounds in little more than one semester. At 5'11'' and 200 pounds, he retained the build of a football player and surprised NAIA newcomers with his speed.
Ironically, Brijesh ran his first race as a Dana Viking in Doane's Fuhrer Field House in January of 2010. His time in the 55 meters of 6.35 seconds was then the fastest in the nation.
"That was the moment," Brijesh said. "I took it serious and started thinking I could do something big in this sport."
The two years that followed held ups and downs. He won NAIA titles. In other races, he froze. "My coach taught me that what you learn in defeat is what makes you win the next one."
Brijesh needed that resiliency in the summer of 2010 when he received another fateful call. Standing on the beach in Saint Kitts, his coach explained that Dana was closing doors. Forever. The calls from recruiters began instantaneously, from GPAC and Division I. Doane stood out, he recalls. He liked the campus, the faculty and the track program that "blew me away."
At Dana he didn't have an individual event coach; he designed some of his own workouts.
"Here at Doane, I look over at the sidelines and there are 14 coaches looking back at me and they all know their stuff."
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Even as he joined the Tiger track program, Brijesh set his sights beyond the college level. His dual citizenship with the United States and his native country made him eligible to run for the St. Kitts-Nevis Amateur Athletic Association (SKNAAA). His first tryout years earlier had cost a $1,200 plane ticket and some pride when he posted disappointing times. After he won his national collegiate titles, the president of SKNAAA called him and asked him to try out again. He has competed internationally for St. Kitts & Nevis ever since.
Brijesh earned five national titles for the Doane Tigers. And he qualified for the 2011 World Championships, which is how he came to be warming up in Daegu, South Korea last year, running the anchor leg of the St. Kitts 4x100 relay team.
A few lanes over, track and field superstar Usain Bolt was warming up and playing to the crowd that chanted his name. ("He does like the camera, and likes telling you he will dominate the race, but overall he's a good guy," Brijesh said.)
Brijesh tuned the tumult out that day.
"I told myself: ‘Just run.'"
It worked. After a perfect handoff he ran with tunnel vision. Five meters out he looked over at the runner from Poland whom he edged out by 100th of a second to cross the finish line third in the world.
"We all went crazy, celebrating," he remembers. The next minutes passed as though taken in surreal snapshots: Raising his country's flag. Bolt offering congratulations. Cameras in every direction.
For him, the celebration was soon over. While his teammates returned home to a red carpet and a parade, he caught an early flight to Omaha to return to class.
"That's how he is," said Ed Fye, head track and field coach at Doane. "Everyone in the U.S. sees Bolt doing his dance after a race. Brijesh gets it done and walks back and acts like he's done it before. For everything he has accomplished, he is humble and he gives back."
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The World Championships secured Brijesh a spot in the Olympics. He also met the standard A qualifying mark in the 100.
He searches for the words to describe what it's like to be a part of the Olympics and a resident of Olympic Village.
"Exciting...humbling...when we came up to Watford in early July you could just feel the whole Olympic spirit all over. I never expected to be here, so it has been really exciting for me."
It was an honor to compete and one that he wants to repeat, he said. He wants to find sponsors and join the professional circuit.
He won't quit running again, he promises.
It's too much a part of him now. "I never would have imagined I'd do any of this."