On your mark.
Inside Harry Gladstein Fieldhouse, a pair of colorless track spikes load into the starting blocks and offset the warm, yellow light that tints the air. At the starter’s signal, eight athletes are just moments away from competing in the fastest event in track and field: the 60-meter dash.
Those white shoes are a personalized canvas to reference and remember the moments that got its owner to this point. They are peppered with black inscriptions to remind one runner of his upbringing, his hardships and his goals. Every athlete raises their rear to the ceiling, fingers gripping the polyurethane granules underneath them. Their eyes are now pointed toward the finish line.
Like they were fired from a loaded gun, the sprinters quickly explode further from the start line. First place was decided in just 6.68 seconds. Redshirt freshman Rikkoi Brathwaite won the race, setting a new personal record at the Hoosier Open on Dec. 7. In the same moment, he became a national record-holder in his home country.
“God please protect me,” Brathwaite has written on the forefoot of his right shoe.
The journey that brought Brathwaite from the British Virgin Islands to southern Indiana is scripted over his feet. Running once broke him to the point of surrendering his hopes. Now, it fuels a hunger to continue striving for the dream he set when he was 13 years old.
Brathwaite was born in Road Town, the capital of Tortola. There, he participated in numerous recreational sports. He played rugby, baseball, soccer and basketball, but running is a cultural pastime in the Caribbean islands.
“I’ve always been running my whole life,” Brathwaite said. “It was kind of the thing to do back home.”
A passion for sprinting bloomed inside the Tortola native while he attended school. Brathwaite and his classmates were divided into four teams: red, blue, yellow and green. Those teams participated in an annual, two-day competition called "sports day" that featured track and field events.
Brathwaite’s intentions as an athlete became serious when he began training under an official sprint coach, Willis “Chucky” Todman, at 8 years old. However, his youth and a decrepit track surface left him susceptible to injury.
When he was 13 years old, the aspiring sprinter developed a soft spot in his knee as a result of the tattered lanes. A runner’s most valuable assets are their legs, and Brathwaite’s gave out under the tension of rigorous exercise. To prevent further injury and risking his career before it even began, the adolescent was forced to take a three-year hiatus from the sport he obsessed over.
When he was 16 years old, after his knee had solidified, he was scared to return to the sport he loved. His friends and competitors had accelerated ahead of him, running the 100-meter dash in nearly 11 seconds. The delay left Brathwaite one second behind, with the recovery process looming over him.
If not for his family of supporters and their impending sacrifices, he may have quit on himself.
“My parents, my coaches, my friends,” Brathwaite said. “My dad, for one, he always pushed me even when I was injured. The minute I got better, he was like, ‘All right, you need to start building up that knee strength.'”
He said his father was responsible for much of his revitalized motivation. He told Brathwaite if he stopped worrying about everyone else’s progress and focused on himself, eventually he would catch up. Now, he was like a horse behind a cage: ready to gallop when the gate – the opportunity – opened in front of him.
While his father and his coaches planned athletic practices, his mother and uncle catered to his improvement in the classroom. Brathwaite scoffed at himself when he remembered his poor academic habits but said he turned that around in preparation for college.
Providing nutrition was his sweet grandmother, who kept food on the table after workouts.
“Remember the sacrifices made by my loved ones,” said another writing on Brathwaite’s right shoe at the Hoosier Open. “Family means everything to me.”
When he returned from his injury, Brathwaite competed in the CARIFTA Games, an annual track meet founded by the Caribbean Free Trade Association, in March 2016. As a high school junior, Brathwaite placed fourth in the Boy’s 100-meter dash finals with a time of 10.69 seconds.
His fourth-place finish caught the attention of IMG Academy. The private boarding school located in Bradenton, Florida, extended an invitation to Brathwaite’s family. It presented the opportunity to stay in the U.S. to compete with their track and field program during his final year of high school.
If not for the chance to attend the high school athletics powerhouse, he would have finished his secondary education at home and then gone to college. Was Brathwaite's goal always to become a collegiate athlete?
His response came without hesitation.
“The goal was for me to be pro,” Brathwaite said. “When I got hurt, I made a vow to myself that I would become pro, that I would get over my injury.”
The rigorous development plan at IMG extracted speed and explosion from its athletes. Brathwaite did low-weight, high-resistance lifting and plyometric exercises. Workouts were low volume, but fast-paced to strengthen his fast-twitch muscles. He never ran in increments larger than 200 meters.
IMG became a catalyst in striving for his childhood dream. In one season, he broke four institutional records in the 100- and 200-meter dash, and as a member of the 4x100 and 4x200 relay teams. With the country's No. 16 time in the 100-meter at 10.34 seconds, he began looking at colleges in June 2017.
Among the colleges that recruited him were IU, Iowa, University of Kentucky and University of Arkansas. Brathwaite said he wanted a school that had an academic program for exercise science and offered a coaching staff that was caring. He wanted to be pushed without jeopardizing his ability. For all of those reasons, Brathwaite came to IU.
“I liked Rikkoi from the start,” IU associate head coach Ed Beathea said. “At IMG, the way they train looks a little different, so we were hopeful that he would be able to transition from that kind of environment to ours. There weren’t any concerns at all, only positives during the recruiting process.”
Brathwaite said training at IU focuses on speed endurance. Sprinters for both the men’s and women’s team run in increments of up to 300 meters with shorter breaks between sets. In practice, he lies down and gets back up. Lies down again, and gets back up again. He said if anyone wants to become a professional athlete, they need to continue to motivate themselves.
The sprinters study film of themselves with Beathea two or three times each week during practice. Brathwaite watches his start as he ejects himself from the starting blocks. He watches his knees driving his frame toward the finish line. When practice is over, his eyes are glued to personal race tapes.
“I guess I get more film time when I do that because I personally go home and watch my own film,” Brathwaite said. “And I watch it 200, 300 times. I just like finding mistakes to become that type of athlete.”
Back at home, Brathwaite utilized his resources. He ran hills with a weighted vest and used the sand as a surface for resistance training. If he wanted to run in higher altitudes, he ran to the tops of those hills. Any terrain Tortola provided, he took advantage of it.
“Rikkoi is a very good teammate,” Beathea said. “He tends to come into practice most days pretty happy and pretty energetic. He is a guy who wants to make everybody laugh and wants to make practice feel lighter, but when we start to train, he’s also the one that wants to get as much out of the workout as anybody.”
Brathwaite had to get the most out of each workout. As a freshman last season, he was redshirted, and his scores didn’t offer points for the men’s team. Before his sophomore year, he met with Beathea and set a goal of running 6.60 in the 60-meter dash before the season started. After running 6.74 as a freshman, he said the goal was realistic.
On Dec. 7, in the first meet of the indoor season, Brathwaite loaded his spikes into the starting blocks, gazing at his pale track spikes riddled in symbolic messages. At the starter’s signal, he raised his rear and peered toward the finish line.
Exploding out of the blocks, he ran a blistering 6.68 to take first place. In his collegiate debut, he broke the British Virgin Islands’ national indoor record. Brathwaite accomplished his short-term goal after just one race, another stepping stone on the journey toward his long-term goal of becoming a professional athlete.
“I feel proud,” Brathwaite said. “I’m proud that I can go home and say I am the record holder of my country. I feel like it’s a good thing, but it’s also a driving factor for me. It’s not a burden, I actually kind of like it because it keeps me in check."
Even in the brightest of spotlights, the sprinter from Road Town stays level-headed and critical of himself. He said his mentors and his father told him to stay the same. Don’t change.
“To me, that’s the route you have to go,” he said.