Maize and blue to red, white and blue.
When a Michigan athlete earns a trip to the Olympics, that particular transition in uniform colors is the most common. But several of the 28 athletes and coaches with Wolverine ties participating in the upcoming Beijing Games are making a different chromatic transition.
In addition to representing the United States, athletes with Michigan ties will represent Canada, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, New Zealand, Peru, Israel and Guyana.
Adam Harris, a rising senior for the Wolverines, will shirk red, white and blue to don a different color scheme in the Olympics: the red, yellow and green of Guyana, his mother’s homeland. Harris will run in the 200-meter dash wearing those colors.
Although competing for the small South American country (its population of 751,000 is about half the size of Phoenix) may seem like an easy way to secure a spot in the Olympic games, Harris and his stress-filled quest to run for Guyana prove that it was anything but.
A rough road to Beijing
With his jaw-dropping natural ability, it’s easy to see how Harris has found success at every level of track he has competed at — from a stellar high school career to a solid first two years as a Wolverine, the Wheaton, Ill. native is always a vital part of the team he’s on.
But no one knew just how good he was until this year’s Big Ten Outdoor Championships.
In that meet, Harris posted a world-class time of 20.75 seconds in the 200-meter dash, good enough to qualify for the U.S. Olympic trials. There was hardly time to celebrate the performance, though. Harris, his mother Darlene and Michigan assistant coach Fred LaPlante immediately began thinking of the ramifications of the Olympic-worthy mark.
Could Harris conceivably run for Team USA?
Should he test his mettle in the fast-approaching Olympic trials?
Or should he take the more obscure approach — becoming a legal citizen of Guyana in order to run for its national team?
In Harris’s mind, the answer was simple.
“I just thought it’d be nice to run for my roots,” he said.
But, from a coaching standpoint, LaPlante thought Guyana was a perfect fit for Harris for different reasons.
If Harris would have run in the U.S. Olympic trials, he would have been tied to the United States for at least two years.
And even had he committed to Team USA, there was no guarantee Harris would make it to Beijing.
“Although he’s great, the U.S. sprint team is the best team in the world,” LaPlante said. “Not that they’re going to win all the medals, but the depth they have makes it very, very difficult to get in. It was easier for him this way to get on the team.”
With everyone — Harris, his mom and LaPlante — in agreement that running for Guyana was the sprinter’s best option, it seemed it was almost a matter of time before he would be participating in the opening ceremony, the aspect of the Olympics Harris is the most excited about.
There was just one problem: Harris needed Guayanan citizenship, and no one quite knew how to go about getting it.
But all it took was a little bit of luck to get the ball running. Years ago, LaPlante “had been around” the Irish national team, when a young man named Joe Ryan ran for Ireland. The two have kept in contact, with LaPlante saying they go “way back.”
It just so happens that Ryan, who now coaches at Manhattan College, is also the coach of the Guyanan contingent, and he directed LaPlante to the proper authorities.
Now equipped with a plan for getting to Beijing, Harris, his mother and his coach each became responsible for a certain aspect of the job. Harris began training daily in Ann Arbor. LaPlante began working with Guyana’s Athletic Federation in order to make sure Harris had a spot on the team. And Darlene Harris arranged her son’s dual citizenship, a task that turned out to be quite a bit more difficult than anticipated.
“Just getting the papers completed and to where they’re supposed to be, it’s pretty hard work,” she said of the weeks she spent pouring over the paperwork she had to file with both the American and Guyanan governments.
“She put in so much work,” Harris said. “I am so thankful for everything she did for me.”
But with his citizenship in limbo, Harris could do nothing but wait and see.
A minor setback
Five hours is a long time to sit still for anyone. For a 21-year-old who has spent the last six months of his life training non-stop for the NCAA Track Championships and a potential invitation to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, that much time spent trapped in the back seat of a car could feel like torture.
Harris found himself in that exact situation three weeks ago.
But in the back seat of his parents’ car, the Michigan men’s track and field star had plenty on his mind to keep him busy during the trip to Toronto. Of course, in the back of his mind was the ever-growing doubt Guyana would accept his citizenship application. Harris had more immediate concerns, too — at the end of the road trip, his first real competition in a month was waiting for him.
After the U.S. Olympic trials, the nation’s top talent dispersed across the world to cram in last-minute training, workouts and meets before the Beijing games. That left Harris and LaPlante alone to train in Ann Arbor. While the one-on-one time with his coach gave Harris seven weeks to tone his body and train, both he and LaPlante are concerned with the extended break in between meets.
“The law of averages would say that he’s at a disadvantage because he hasn’t raced,” LaPlante said. “The other guys are sharp from racing, but who knows what will happen? It’s like when you haven’t been on a golf course in a long time, and you just go out there and, wham, in the first couple holes you’re playing better than you ever have before.”
So Harris was more than happy to take a break from his training to make the trip to a small meet in Toronto. His parents, Albert and Darlene, had just come back from watching Adam’s older brother, A.J., play in a Canadian Football League game for the Edmonton Eskimos. They went back to Michigan for just long enough to pick Adam up before returning to Canada.
During Harris’s warm-up stretch an hour before the race, the meet was canceled because of a severe thunderstorm. It was the last chance Harris had to run competitively before the Olympics.
Harris could have gotten discouraged. For that matter, the daily grind of intense workouts to prepare himself for a goal that, according to LaPlante, had “less than a 50 percent chance” of happening could have gotten to him. But did he ever worry about not competing in the Olympics?
“You could probably see it in my face, but you never saw it in him,” LaPlante said. “I mean, that’s what’s amazing about the guy. I really had two or three times when there’d be kind of a dead period when something was supposed to happen that didn’t happen, and I’d say, ‘I just don’t know if I can see this happening.’ But he just kept going.”
The champagne flows?
LaPlante just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to at least offer a glass of the bubbly to Harris after word came from Guyana that his citizenship had been accepted. On July 23, about a week after Harris’s disappointment in Toronto, his spot on the Guyanan national team became official.
Harris kindly declined the invitation to celebrate.
“He acted like he knew it was going to happen the whole time,” LaPlante said. “I think in his mind, he deserved to go. He ran the mark, which is what he wanted to do. He wanted to run for Guyana.”
Harris understands the opportunity in front of him — not just the unique experience that competing in the Olympics can give to an athlete, but also what his time in Beijing will mean for his future in track.
Few collegiate athletes get the chance to compete internationally before graduation, so running against the best talent in the world will be a great help if Harris chooses to pursue a career in sprinting once his days at Michigan are over. Not only that, but the colors Harris chose to represent will have a profound impact on the types of events he’ll be able to book in the future.
“Years from now, when he gets in these track meets, the meet promoters — usually, the top eight guys in the world are American — they don’t want eight Americans,” LaPlante said. “They want a runner from Jamaica and Finland and so on and so forth.”
But for now, Harris is solely focused on his time in Beijing.
“I actually have no idea what to expect, because I haven’t raced in so long,” Harris said. “I’m just looking to go over there, run my best and hopefully get a (personal record).”