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Runner’s Olympic dream coming true — 8 years late

Since childhood, Roman Cress of Minneapolis has fantasized about being an Olympian.

Olympic podcast: Jay Weiner talks about the story below and the upcoming Beijing Olympics

The Marshall Islands are a ridiculously long way from 36th Street and Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis. That’s the neighborhood where Roman Cress grew up, competed at South High and went on to set track records at the University of St. Thomas, all the while fantasizing about becoming an Olympian.

His mother, Margina, was born on Kaben, one of the 1,000 or so islands that make up the Republic of the Marshall Islands. His parents met there when his father, Robert Cress, was a Peace Corps volunteer. Roman Cress spent only the first 10 months of his life there and has returned to the tiny nation in the middle of the Pacific eight times in his 30 years.

Still, Cress feels emotionally connected to the tiny spots on your map midway between Hawaii and Australia, about 6,300 miles away … or about as close as his chances of winning a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics this summer.

But, make no mistake, he will be in Beijing three months from today, when the 2008 Summer Games begin. After eight years of waiting, Cress, who hasn’t competed in a track meet since 2006, will march into the Opening Ceremonies, the one male track athlete to compete for the blue, white and orange of the Marshall Islands.

What’s more, it will be the inaugural Olympics for the nation of 63,000 people in Micronesia. Cress, who now lives in North Minneapolis, is the Marshalls’ most decorated international athlete.

Past his prime
It should have happened in 2000, at the Sydney Olympics. Then, Cress was in the best shape of his life, and the Marshall Islands, which gained full independence from the United States in 1986, seemed poised to enter its first Olympic Games.

Roman Cress
MinnPost photo by Jay Weiner
Roman Cress

In 1999, Cress ran a 10.39 100-meter dash, his personal best. Later, in 2000, he set or matched St. Thomas and Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference records in five events. He ran the world’s ninth-fastest indoor 55-meter time of 6.20.

“This is when Roman was in his prime,” Marshall Island Olympic Committee secretary-general Terry Sasser told MinnPost in an email. “He actually held the record for the fastest man in the Pacific at that time and qualified on his own merit in the 100 meters, which is a very difficult task.”

But, at that point, the Marshall Islands didn’t sponsor five sports. That was a requirement of the International Olympics Committee.

Cress viewed that moment as an “injustice,” as other nations, such as East Timor, used political clout, even sympathy, to get to Sydney, so close to the Marshalls.

Soon after, injuries dogged him, particularly a left hamstring tear. He continued to compete off and on for the Marshall Islands in continental and regional events.

But Cress became discouraged about the Olympic possibility, even though he represented the Marshalls at the world track championships in 2003 in the 200 meters. He didn’t advance out of the first heat. The sports structure in the Marshall Islands seemed disorganized. There was talk of sending him to special training camps. There is no running track in the Marshall Islands.

Again, in 2004, the Marshalls were denied a chance to send athletes to Athens. Cress saw his dream fading. Sasser and other Marshall Islands Olympic officials continued their lobbying.

“On Feb. 10, 2006, I remember our phone ringing in the early morning hours,” Sasser said. “But we were unable to get a connection. So I checked my email, and there were emails waiting from several people.”

The Marshall Islands Olympic Committee had been approved for Beijing, becoming the 205th Olympic nation, or 13 more than are in the United Nations.

“Of course, I couldn’t go back to sleep,” Sasser said.

On the other side of the world, Roman Cress was now a father, a husband and an administrative assistant at North View Junior High in Brooklyn Park.

Little did he know, he was on his way to the Olympics.

Deserving or not?

Cress heard the news that winter and competed for the Marshall Islands at the 2006 Micronesia Games, winning a bronze medal in the 100 meters and the gold in the 200 meters, competing against athletes from nations like Chuuk and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Soon after, there was silence. Cress assumed another glitch.

“It was kind of like a tease,” said Tyrone Minor, Cress’ coach in the Twin Cities. “I think he thought the opportunity was gone again.”

Then, last month, Sasser communicated with Cress. He would run for the Marshalls.  Documents showed it. It wasn’t a fantasy. Roman Cress would compete in the 100-meter dash, a marquee event, at the Beijing Games.

Enter the doubt.

“I felt like I deserved it back in 1999,” Cress said last week before a training session in St. Paul. “I don’t feel I deserve it now.”

He’s trying to get himself in shape again, and quickly. He posted his personal best of 10.39 in the 100 nearly nine years ago.

In 2008, more than 65 men in the world have run faster than that, including 24 Americans. Indeed, the international track federation’s list of best performances for 2008 only goes as deep as 10.33. Last year’s Minnesota high-school state champion boy ran a 10.7. Cress is hoping for that in Beijing.

Minor, his coach, said: “He’s like the old car you pull out of the garage, shine it up and give it a tuneup. You can’t expect him to run a personal best … He’s going to be rusty.”

Courtesy of the World Health Organization

Minor figures if Cress had dived deeply into training in 2006, when the Marshall Islands were first admitted to the Beijing Games, he could have honed his skills, harnessed his experience. But that time was lost.

The motivation
Cress will be in Beijing because of a waiver that the Marshall Islands and other small nations receive at the Olympic track meet.

American track athletes, on the other hand, must attain a certain standard to compete at the Games: win the trials, crack a certain time. Athletes from most of the larger nations are in that challenging qualifying mode. In the 100 meters this year, the top standard is 10.21.

But for a nation that has no one reaching the standard, it can enter one athlete in the sport; that is, the Marshall Islands can put one male in track, in any event, no matter how competent he or she is.

Enter Cress, joined by four other Marshallese athletes, including a high-school girl runner from Marysville, Wash., and a male swimmer from Florida State.

None is expected to come close to medaling.

“The truth of the matter is a lot of these guys, including myself, don’t deserve to be there,” Cress said. “I mean, the whole Olympics could take athletes out of the United States alone. But, you know, it’s more about the spirit of the Games. It’s more a Games of unity than athletics sometimes.”

Still, for Cress, it could be a Games of embarrassment.

“I hope there are no Americans in my heat,” Cress said, laughing, “because that’ll be televised.” And, it’s likely. Cress will be way back in the pack.

All this, for 11 seconds of certain defeat? Why do it?

“Because they asked,” said Cress, “due to loyalty and respect to my country, to my heritage. They’ve done a lot for me and I feel it’s giving back … Maybe I’ll run well. I’m still competitive for the Pacific [region]. They still want me because there’s no one else to pick from. There’s nobody else to choose from. I’ve got to go.”

Besides, Roman Cress said, there’s even a bit of guilt within him. He should have done better in the Micronesia Games two years ago, he says. He didn’t advance out of the heats at the Oceania Games in 2006.

“I feel like I let people down,” he said. “I let my country down.”

He added: “The Pacific, just in general, feels like my home. Even though I was raised in Minneapolis, and Minnesota has always been home for me, when I go there, I really feel like I’m home. I don’t why. It doesn’t make any sense to me. But the Marshall Islands feel like home.”

One other thing

So, there is some deep-seeded national pride in his DNA. There are also some words — blunt, hurtful, realistic — from his father that affected Roman Cress deeply, to this day.

He remembers a conversation when he was in high school. His father, an honest fellow, a longtime proofreader at a Minneapolis ad agency, told him then it was going to be very difficult to make the U.S. Olympic team, especially in the sprints.

“It’s harder than winning the lottery,” Bob Cress said earlier this week.

But Roman remembers the conversation of a dozen years ago and still hears his father saying, ” ‘There’s no chance you ever have of going to the Olympics.’ I used to believe I could. It was a dream . . . But what he said to me, that really echoed. I love my dad, and when he says something is true, it’s true. That didn’t sit well with me . . . It was true. But it beat down my heart. I couldn’t accept it.”

Bob Cress doesn’t remember that exchange, saying, “I think he’s exaggerating a bit.”

But it motivated the son to dive into his training then. Before long, it was the father who first contacted the Marshall Islands’ embassy in Washington in 1998 to let them know there was a Marshallese runner in Minnesota.

“They didn’t know he existed,” Bob Cress said.

Now they do — the world does — and come Aug. 8, Roman Cress plans on marching into the 2008 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremonies. As the nation’s most experienced and honored athlete, he’s a strong candidate to carry the Marshall Islands flag.

“This has yet to be determined,” Sasser said of who will get that historic honor to lead the Marshalls’ first Olympic delegation.

“If they ask me to, of course, I’ll do it,” said Cress.

It’s the country of his ancestors, and all things considered, he deserves it.

Jay Weiner, who has covered every Winter and Summer Olympics since 1984, will report for MinnPost from the 2008 Beijing Games.