BEIJING — He finished last. Dead last.
Afterwards, Roman Cress was fighting back tears and a certain amount of embarrassment.
We wrote about Cress way back in May when he first learned he’d represent the Marshall Islands here in Beijing.
He was a terrific small college runner at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul a decade ago. The Marshalls were admitted to the International Olympic Committee a few years back. They needed a 100-meter guy. Cress, from Minneapolis and working as an administrative assistant in the Brooklyn Park schools, fit the bill. He’s the son of a native Marshall Islander mom.
So, Friday morning, he was among 80 men in the world who got a chance to sprint through the rounds in hopes of getting to the final eight spots in Saturday night’s finals. This is the race in which the world’s fastest men zoom.
Cress knew he wasn’t going to get to the finals. But he wanted to show his stuff.
Cress was in the second heat of the day under an unusually clear Beijing blue sky. In his white Marshall Islands track shirt and black shorts, he got the fourth lane next to Asafa Powell, the Jamaican who held the 100-meter world record for three years before losing it in May.
The gun went off, Powell burst out of the blocks.
Cress did not.
Cress was five yards behind the field 15 yards into the race.
He and Aisea Tohi of Tonga separated themselves from the other eight sprinters in the race. They were in that most sobering of photo finishes … to determine who was last.
It was Cress. After 11.18 seconds, Cress’s Olympics were over, a full 1.02 seconds behind Powell, who jogged across the finish line so relaxed he could have been eating a sandwich as he did.
Minutes later, here came a disconsolate Cress, walking slowly from the track at the Bird’s Nest past the assembled media of the planet.
“I don’t know what to say,” Cress said. “I didn’t break 11 seconds. I’ve seen women down here faster than me.”
He sought some consolation.
“I’m still the fastest person in the Marshall Islands,” he said, giving new meaning to looking on the bright side.
He said he’d been bothered by hamstring and abdominal muscle issues. He bluntly noted his poor start.
“I wish I could have done better,” he said. “I’m just getting old, man.”
As for starting in the lane next to Powell, Cress’ countenance brightened.
“I was excited,” he said. “I can tell my children and my friends for the rest of my life that I ran against the world’s fastest man.”
There was nothing more to ask.
Roman Cress, Olympian, turned to walk away, but not before saying, “I’ll cry later.”