Olympic hopeful Jason Richardson tries teaching Savannah to hurdle

April 18, 2012 at 10:36 AM ET

As he prepares to take on the world’s best in the London Olympics this summer, American track star Jason Richardson was given a much more daunting challenge on Wednesday – teaching TODAY’s Savannah Guthrie how to clear a hurdle.

Richardson, the reigning world champion in the 110-meter hurdles, gave Savannah the simple advice to “hop as high as you can and get over it,’’ and offered to catch her if she fell. Outfitted in her red, white and blue track suit and lined up a few yards away from a hurdle set up outside the plaza, Savannah exuded confidence.

“You said no one’s ever died from hurdling, right?’’ she said.

Three quick steps and one leg lift later, Savannah made it halfway home before turning back. After declaring her attempt “embarrassing,’’ she tried again with a different plan. This time she ducked under the hurdle to achieve her goal of making it clearly to the other side and possibly creating a new track event in the process.

“Have you ever tried this way?’’ she asked Richardson. “New Olympic sport, potentially?’’

While Savannah’s hopes of ever reaching the Olympics were dashed on Wednesday, Richardson is looking to reach his first Olympic games this summer. In August, he won his first world title in Daegu, South Korea amid strange circumstances. Reigning Olympic champion Dayron Robles of Cuba finished first, but was disqualified for obstructing China’s Liu Xiang on the penultimate hurdle. That gave the gold to Richardson, who finished in 13.16 seconds, which was .08 of a second off his personal best.

Richardson had finished eighth in the national championships a year earlier and ran a 13.15 to take third at the USA Outdoor Championships in 2011. He now finds himself a marked man heading into the Olympic trials from June 21-July 1 in Eugene, Ore.

 “It’s an honor to feel like that,’’ Richardson said. “But everybody’s a competitor. In the Olympics, everybody brings athleticism to the track so we’re all trying to get out there and win.’’

Richardson claims to be “allergic to stress’’ and uses several means to deal with the pressure of raised expectations as a result of his victory in Daegu. If he qualifies as expected, he will again have to deal with Robles and Xiang, along with teammate David Oliver, who have all run under 13 seconds.

“A lot of prayers, a lot of deep breaths, a lot of good music, and just camaraderie with my teammates,’’ he said about coping with the pressure. “Team USA is the best team in the world so I’m just happy to be a part of it.’’

A Texas native who ran for the University of South Carolina, Richardson, 26, competed in the 2008 Olympic trials but failed to qualify after suffering an injury in a preliminary race.

“Just like in life, when you hurdle you can’t be afraid to fall, (and) you can’t be afraid to fail,’’ Richardson said. “You have to stay on your feet and when you kind of get banged up and knocked around, you’ve just got to keep going straight.’’

A man of many talents, Richardson was on the debate team in high school and also dabbled in basketball, soccer and playing the saxophone before choosing to become a competitive hurdler. He turned professional in 2009, focusing solely on the high hurdles after also having run the intermediate hurdles in high school.

“I chose hurdles because it came naturally, and I felt like it was a gift,’’ he said. “When God gives you gifts, you’ve just got to stick to them and just ride it out.’’ 

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