HATTIESBURG, Miss. (WDAM) - With what likely would have been a fourth consecutive All-America citation in hand, University of Southern Mississippi senior high jump specialist Eric Richards hoped to be spending these days preparing for the United States Olympic Team trials
But, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 Conference USA outdoor track season never was staged, so Richards never got a chance to defend his 2019 gold medal in the high jump.
Worse, there were no U.S. Olympic trials because the 2020 summer games scheduled for Japan were postponed, pushed back a year by COVID-19.
Instead, Richards is spending his days at home near Jackson, biding his time and waiting for his next chance to defy gravity and attack the aluminum bar that when he’s at his best, rests more than a foot-and-a-half above his head.
“I’m still trying to process it all,” Richards said. “I’m taking it step-by-step. It’s hard for me to believe that our season had to end like that, and it’s hard to believe that the outdoor season had to end like that."
“It feels like a dream to most of us ... I’ll probably think about it a lot. It’s crazy. It’s really weird.”
The 5-foot-9 Raymond resident said he had entered his senior season at USM poised for his best year.
“I felt like this was my best year jumping or one of the better years I was gonna have,” Richards said. “I was in shape. I was feeling good. I was ready to peak.”
He posted the best indoor jump of his career this fall in the Houston G5/Super 22 Invitational, clearing 7 feet, 4 ½ inches. It would stand as the fifth-best jump of the 2019 indoor season and 15th highest clearance in the world in 2019.
But he never got a chance to defend either of his 2019 high jump championships, with the indoor championships canceled a day before the event was to begin.
“We had just come from practicing at the track and as far as had known at the time, the meet was on,” USM track and field coach Jon Stuart. “By the time we get back to the hotel and go to my room, I get an e-mail saying the meet is over with. And then after that, we get another message 30 minutes later saying the season is over with. Then we get another message ‘Please leave the hotel and go back home.’
“It was the craziest thing in the world.”
Still, that didn’t stop Richards from earning a second consecutive All-America nod for indoor track. Cited after the 2019 track season, as well, last month’s All-America indoor honor was Richards’ third at USM.
In addition to winning both the indoors and outdoors C-USA high jump titles as a USM junior, Richards finished fifth in his event at the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s championships meet and ninth in the national indoors.
Richards was a four-time All-American at Hinds Community College, finishing fourth twice nationally in indoor competition and second twice nationally during the outdoor season.
Before that, he was a multi-sport participant at Utica High School who discovered he had the penchant and the talent for track and field.
“High school, my ninth-grade year, my coach, who was my cousin, he saw me playing basketball and asked me to come out,” Richards said. “So, I went out and he wanted to work on some jumps. I found it, and ever since then, I’ve been in the groove.
“It was just something new, something different. I was just in high school, trying new things. I didn’t think I’d come this far. But once I got to my 11th grade year, I knew I was pretty good. I’d won state twice by then, so after my 10th grade year it finally hit me that this was something I could see myself doing in the future.”
So, can Stuart, a future he could see looming beyond Richards’ collegiate days.
If a silver lining exists, Richards can come back for a “second” senior year.
After cancelling all spring sports and championships the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to all spring sports participants.
That means Richards and any other seniors would be able to participate in the 2021 outdoor season only.
“That is a big commitment to come back to school for an entire year just for one outdoor season,” Stuart said. “I think a majority of our kids are just going to go ahead and graduate and just begin their lives.
“But one of the more important ones (returning) for us is All-American Eric Richards. He didn’t get a chance to high jump indoors and he was ranked number five in the country. We thought he was really primed to do some good things this year. Next year’s an Olympic year and he’s a guy that’s going to make it to the Olympic trials. I’m excited about him coming back next year.”
Richards said he’d be more than willing to come back.
“I’d definitely come back,” Richards said. “I don’t want my talent to go to waste and this was something that I was gifted. I want to put it all together and see what I can do.
“It may only be the outdoor season, but if they bring it all back, yeah, I’d do it. I’d definitely do it.”
While Richards said he has embraced “the something that he was gifted,” he still sometimes catches himself thinking about it.
“It’s really crazy when I think about it for me to jump that high, but I don’t think I’ve reached my full potential yet,” he said. “But to jump that high, get over the bar, it’s crazy. I don’t think about it. I just go out and have fun.
Richards said he needed to work on slowing down the event and find a way to maintain consistency.
“Sometimes I rush the jump,” Richards said. “But once I put everything together, with my technique, my foot placement, my speed to the bar, then I’ve got to stay consistent. I’ve got to work on that. Most of the time, I don’t stay consistent out there. Sometimes, I’m just all over the place. But I’m working on it.”
And being able to focus on just one season _ and potentially what may come after _ could be the widest part of any silver lining for Richards over the past three months or so.
“It just helps him to maintain some structure and have some consistent coaching working with (USM assistant) coach [Jamaal] Barnes all year,” Stuart said. “He’ll have time on his hands. He’s not going to be rushed through an indoor season to try to be good at an indoor season and outdoor season. He just needs to be in his best form through the month of May, June and July, and I think that’s something we can accomplish pretty easily.
“That’s going to be a big benefit to him. We don’t have to have him in great shape all year long. Usually when you’re in super shape all year long, eventually you have a super injury. We just have to peak at the right time.”