After clearing the ninth and penultimate hurdle, Ronnie Ash could feel his momentum building. Twenty meters to go, closing on the blur to his left, a bronze medal potentially within reach with one hurdle to go.
That’s where Ash stood after 90 meters of the 110-meter hurdles on Tuesday, having come a long way not only in that race but in the eight years after he cleared his first hurdle.
He was a senior at Knightdale High School in 2008, his first and only year there after his family fled a dangerous New Jersey neighborhood. Track coach David Castell asked him if he’d ever thought about running track. Castell pushed and pushed, day after day.
“Boy, I had to beat the fence down,” Castell said Tuesday. “No was not an option.”
Castell saw something in Ash that Ash couldn’t see yet. The world was starting to see it Tuesday as Ash gained on the leaders coming off the ninth hurdle. Jamaica’s Omar McLeod was well ahead, cruising to gold. Ash knew if he could get past Milan Trajkovic in the lane to his left, he had a real chance to get on the podium. He approached the 10th hurdle knowing it would take everything he had to get there.
And Ash knew how to get there. He may have picked up the sport slowly, but he hasn’t slowed down since. From there, Ash won NCAA titles at Bethune-Cookman and Oklahoma, joined the international track circuit after his junior year with the Sooners and, in July, eight years after he cleared his first hurdle, qualified for the Olympics at the U.S. Olympic Trials. At 28, he was among the best in the world, owner of the 20th-best time ever recorded.
“You can’t see it yourself at 17, 18,” Ash said. “You just go out there, compete with your homeboys, compete with your friends, and it turns out to be something.”
His 13.31 was the second-fastest time in the first round of qualifying Monday, and he followed that up with Tuesday’s 13.36 to qualify for the final late Tuesday night. Clearly the fastest in the heat, Ash slowed up at the end once a top-two placing was assured to conserve energy for the bigger race only two hours away.
Which is how Ash arrived at the biggest race of his life, the dream of a lifetime only eight years in the making. His parents still live in Knightdale, where his life changed forever when one persistent coach saw an Olympian inside the quiet kid from New Jersey.
“I never had any doubt with his work ethic he would be where he’s at today,” Castell said. “There was not a doubt in my mind he would be an Olympian. I saw it coming. I’m not surprised it happened.”
As Ash approached that 10th hurdle, there had been many reminders of how fickle track is, how cruel the last few meters of a race can be. In the previous race, Duke alumna Shannon Rowbury finished fourth in the 1,500-meter final, a mere .12 seconds from bronze, just unable to catch teammate Jennifer Simpson. So as Simpson paraded with the flag, the first American woman ever to medal in the 1,500, Rowbury could only rue her inability to close the small gap on Simpson in the final 50 meters.
In three Olympics, this was as close as she had come to a medal. At 31, this may be as close as she ever gets.
Ash, too, could sense a medal on the horizon. He threw everything he had into the last hurdle. Later, he’d realize that in an attempt to squeeze a few milliseconds out of the race, his technique broke down. Instead of powering upward at launch, he was angled too far forward. Going over the hurdle, the spikes at the back of the ball of his right foot grazed the bar, flipping the hurdle forward. He tangled with it. He tumbled.
Ash fought to regain his balance but ended up stumbling the final 10 meters at almost a right angle to the track, finally doing a somersault over the finish line, eighth of top eight in the world.
“I was surging a bit to come into possibly third to secondish place, I don’t know,” Ash said. “But there’s 10 barriers and you have to clear them all, and they don’t fade away.”
Ronnie Ash was milliseconds away from a medal, and it all fell apart, and he could only smile wryly and accept the fate that had unexpectedly brought him here. Monday, he had compared the hurdles to salsa dancing. Tuesday, that seemed prescient.
“That salsa dance crashed me right on down,” Ash said, laughing.
What he’ll remember isn’t how far the final few meters seemed, how close he came to bronze. It’s how far he came in only eight years.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock