By Will Stafford
LSU Sports Information
Jamaica is a nation known for speed.
Usain Bolt pushed the limits of human performance while smashing world records with his Olympic double in Beijing four years ago, winning the 100 meters in 9.69 seconds and the 200 meters in 19.30. He broke down barriers in Berlin the following year with his 9.58/19.19 sweep at the World Championships.
Bolt electrified a nation and sparked a revolution of sprinting the sport had never seen before.
It was Asafa Powell who brought the Caribbean nation of 2.8 million into focus as the 100m world-record holder before Bolt burst onto the international scene in Beijing.
Jamaica is now home to the world’s brightest stars, with the likes of Yohan Blake, Nesta Carter, Jermaine Gonzales, Nickel Ashmeade, Michael Frater and Marvin Anderson following in their lineage.
Also an emerging talent on the world’s most celebrated sprint squad is LSU’s own Riker Hylton.
The 23-year-old from Linstead got his first taste of the acclaim that comes with competing with the fastest nation on the planet in his World Championships debut a year ago in Daegu, South Korea. Nothing would have prepared Hylton for the reception he received away from his homeland.
“Whenever I would go out and put that Jamaica jacket on, or shirt or whatever, people would stop me and say, ‘Hey, you’re from Jamaica!’ Hylton said. “It’s like nothing I ever felt before. It really fills you with a lot of pride, knowing that people like Jamaica for what we’ve accomplished over the years. It’s a big deal. You see how much people expect of you when you put that jacket on.”
And Hylton certainly made the most of his international debut with the national team.
While advancing to the 400-meter semifinals, Hylton helped hand Jamaica its bronze medal in the 4x400-meter relay final while earning his place on the medal podium for the first time.
It was an experience that would open the door for Hylton to chase his Olympic dream as he joins his team in London for the Games of the XXX Olympiad that are now underway.
“That’s a big thing right there,” Hylton exclaimed as he found the words to describe what it is like to now call himself an Olympian. “It’s something that I’ve always wanted. I really can’t describe this feeling, you know. I’m proud of myself. I’m proud to be here for Jamaica.”
A product of the sprint power St. Jago High School in Spanish Town, Jamaica, Hylton has followed in the footsteps of the world’s elite in his rise to the top of the sport.
As one of his nation’s premier prep prospects, Hylton helped form the foundation of his St. Jago team that also featured future international superstars Yohan Blake and Nickel Ashmeade.
Blake is now a threat to Usain Bolt’s sprint supremacy as the reigning World Champion in the 100 meters and one of the world’s leading 200-meter sprinters. He is the 2012 world leader at 9.75, while he also owns a personal best of 19.26 in the 200-meter dash. Ashmeade is also one of the world’s best sprinters as he owns PRs of 9.93 in the 100 meters and 19.91 in the 200 meters as a 22-year-old.
Hylton will soon rejoin his teammates on the professional circuit following his collegiate career.
“We were like a family back then. We still keep in touch,” Hylton said of his St. Jago teammates. “We all thought like, ‘Hey, all of us got to get up there. We’ve got to make it.’
“I see Yohan Blake step up to the plate, and I’m like, ‘That’s one of us.’ Then, Nickel Ashmeade makes it and is running some 19s in the 200. I was like, ‘Come on, it’s my turn.’ Those guys really push me. When I see them up there, I know that’s my teammate right there. I know I can do what they’re doing.”
The coaches at St. Jago recognized Hylton’s untapped potential in 2005 when he attempted to earn a place on his first Jamaican national team at the trials for the IAAF World Youth Championships.
While Hylton came up short with a fourth-place finish in the 400-meter final, the coaches thought enough of his raw talent to approach Hylton’s mother, Carmen, about the possibility of a transfer.
Academic concerns are what kept Carmen Hylton from giving her blessing at first.
“I really needed to step up in my schoolwork. My mother was like, ‘You’ve really got to step it up, Riker, or there is no more track,’” Hylton remembered. “I begged her to give me a chance. I worked so hard that year. I did well in school, but I was also making every team I tried to. I actually made the Carifta (Games) team. I made the Pan Am (Junior) team. She saw how I was making progress.”
Like many of Jamaica’s young stars, Hylton was first introduced to the top college programs in the United States while competing with his high school team at the annual Penn Relay Carnival.
The Penn Relays not only shines a spotlight on many of the nation’s top college programs, but also boasts a Jamaican flair with the country’s top talent on display within the ancient confines of Franklin Field each season at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Hylton actually made history with his St. Jago teammates at the Penn Relays in 2007 as the team’s second leg on the first high school 4x100-meter relay to break 40 seconds in meet history. He teamed with Andre Walsh on the leadoff leg, Ashmeade on the third leg and Blake on the anchor leg to race to a winning time of 39.96 while dominating the boy’s Championship of America relay final.
That is also the year in which Hylton saw LSU compete for the first time.
“I start hearing about LSU at Penn Relays, and I actually saw them,” Hylton recalled. “I saw them in their purple suits. They were looking all nice in their uniforms like they were ready to run. They looked like they were into this track thing a lot. I was like, ‘Yeah, LSU is it.’”
Despite the wishes of his coaches for Hylton to remain in Jamaica and continue his training in the wake of his stint at St. Jago, Carmen Hylton had other ideas for her son.
Knowing that her son’s talent might open a door to the American university system, she encouraged Riker to make the move to the mainland to continue his academic and athletic pursuits.
“My mother had different ideas,” Hylton laughed. “She wanted me to go to a new place, be around different people and be in a different environment. She told me to try something different, to branch out and go and do something on my own. I think she just wanted me to mature and become a man. She would say, ‘I want you to get your education.’ Going to the U.S. was a way for me to do that.”
As a way to ease into the U.S. system, Hylton elected to attend a two-year junior college before looking to join a training program at a major four-year university.
“My mother thought that if I do that, I would do better in my school work because I’m not rushing myself into the university thing,” Hylton explained. “I could see how the system works.”
With two years at Essex County College in New Jersey, Hylton would be ready to take on the NCAA.
He received attention from some of the nation’s premier programs, including Tennessee and Texas A&M, and decided to visit those most interested in his talent.
But there was something that stuck when making his visit to LSU.
Perhaps it was the academic support system that outlined the path to graduation. Perhaps it was an athletic training staff with the reputation as one of the nation’s best. Perhaps it was the honesty of a head coach on the importance of personal responsibility needed to chase his dreams.
“Coach (Dennis) Shaver explained to me that, at LSU, you can be the best you want to be,” Hylton stated. “There were people there to push me and keep me on track. I needed to be around people like that. My mother pushed me, my father pushed me. They weren’t going to be around me, so I knew the best place to be was with people like that who cared so much. Choosing LSU was a really big deal to me.”
It’s a decision that has paid big dividends for both Hylton and LSU as he has developed into a world-class 400-meter sprinter in his two seasons at the Baton Rouge-based University.
A four-time NCAA All-American, Hylton was a three-time NCAA semifinalist in the 400-meter dash and anchored LSU’s fearsome 4x400-meter relay team. He even wrapped up his collegiate career with his best relay run as a Tiger at 44.24 on the anchor leg for LSU at the NCAA Championships.
After finishing as the NCAA Outdoor silver medalists in 2011, Hylton helped the Tigers take two national championship bronze medals in the 4x400 relay as a senior in 2012.
There’s no denying Hylton’s impact on his country’s 400-meter resurgence.
That was never more evident than 2011 when he was crowned the Jamaican 400-meter champion with the best race of his life when he ran a PR of 45.30 to upset the great Jermaine Gonzales and take the title. The victory gave Hylton a spot on Jamaica’s World Championship squad for the first time.
“I knew I was ready,” Hylton proclaimed. “I just thought, ‘This is an opportunity of a lifetime. Just go out there and do something with it.’ That’s exactly what I did that day.”
Hylton also set his seasonal best in 2012 when returning home for Jamaica’s Olympic Trials, racing to the time of 45.36 for sixth place in the 400-meter final to earn his trip to London in the relay pool.
“Over the years, when it comes to the Olympics or World Championships or whatever, our guys would be dominating the shorter races. It’s been shaky in the 400,” Hylton said. “It’s getting a lot better. I really did not even know some of the guys at (Olympic) trials. I’m like, ‘Who are these guys?’
“When you see these guys come out and not play around, you see how strong it is now. It’s really exciting to be a part of that myself in my event. We want to be at that level.”
Hylton will now look to lead Jamaica’s quartermilers to London and beyond.
It would be quite the responsibility for most, but Hylton says he and his Jamaican teammates share such a responsibility of leading the way for one of the most track-crazed nations on the planet.
“In Jamaica, that’s our thing,” Hylton explained of Jamaica’s love for the sport of track and field. “We all just love track and field. You can’t help but feel it when you see the stadiums all full of people and we are all excited. There’s nothing like it anywhere else in the world.”
It’s like no place else in the world, except maybe London over the next 14 days as the Jamaicans will look to shock the world once again during the Games of the XXX Olympiad.