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One athlete's story of competing in his country's first Olympics

Roman Cress, a junior-high assistant in Minnesota, will compete for his native Marshall Islands in Beijing – part of a five-member team the nation is fielding for its first Games.

By Jay WeinerCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 22, 2008

Jay Weiner

Sprinter Roman Cress

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St. Paul, Minn.

It was 4:30 p.m. on a still chilly Minnesota May afternoon as Roman Cress raced into the college gymnasium. The squeak of sneakers from pickup basketball games filled the air.

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Mr. Cress had toiled all day as an administrative assistant to a junior-high-school assistant principal, dealing, mostly, with disciplinary issues. Now, after navigating the beginnings of Twin Cities rush-hour traffic from the suburban school to the tiny Concordia University campus in St. Paul, Cress stripped down to a tank top and shorts. He pulled his running shoes from his well-worn blue equipment bag, placed his iPod buds in his ears, and began working out for ... the Olympics.

Yep, those Olympics, the Beijing Games, the real ones, set to start on August 8.

Were Cress pondering trying out for the US Olympic team, his chances would be as remote as, well, the Marshall Islands, 6,300 miles away from Minnesota. But because he was born on the island of Kaven in the Marshalls to a Marshallese mother and spent a full 10 months of his life there, Cress is guaranteed a start in the 100-meter preliminary heats in Beijing.

Cress, who hasn't competed in a track meet since late 2006, will be the Marshalls' only male track athlete in that nation's first appearance ever in an Olympics. His presence in Beijing is one serendipitous example of so many Olympic tales past and future: The humble kid next door becomes a surprising global participant and, in so doing, represents a notion that the five-ringed finish line isn't always about winning, but simply getting there.

Even if you took the fastest 100-meter he's ever run – which was way back in 1999 – Cress's mark of 10.39 seconds wouldn't be among the top 70 in the world this year.

"I felt like I deserved it back in 1999," Cress says. "I don't feel I deserve it now."

His friend and coach, Tyrone Minor, puts his entrance in a little more context. "He's like the old car you pull out of the garage, shine it up, and give it a tuneup," he says. "You can't expect him to run a personal best. He's going to be rusty."

Roman Cress's Olympics will last about 11 seconds. His journey to Beijing took eight years.

• • •

Native Minnesotan Bob Cress was a Peace Corps volunteer from 1970-72 on the island of Kaven in the Maleolap atoll. He remained there after his stint and taught English. He met native Margina Aikne. One of 11 children, she was the daughter of a fisherman. Bob and Margina married in 1974.

On Aug. 2, 1977, Roman was born, the second of four children. Three decades later, Roman Cress is the Marshalls' most decorated international athlete, winning medals in regional events and competing in world championships.

But in his view the nation of 60,000 people – which doesn't even have an Olympic-sized track – should have marched into the Opening Ceremonies in Sydney at the 2000 Summer Olympics. Cress was in the best shape of his life, and the Marshall Islands, which gained independence from the US in 1986, is a virtual neighbor to Australia, only 3,000 miles away.