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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.

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In 1999, Cress ran a 10.39-second 100-meter dash, his personal best. Later, in 2000, he set or matched five school and conference records while at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. He ran the world's ninth-fastest indoor 55-meter time of 6.20. "This is when Roman was in his prime," Terry Sasser, secretary-general of the Marshall Island Olympic Committee, wrote in an e-mail. "He actually held the record for the fastest man in the Pacific at that time and qualified on his own merit in the 100 meters, which is a very difficult task."

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But at that point the Marshall Islands didn't sponsor five sports, which is a requirement of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for admission to the Games. Cress viewed that moment as an "injustice." Mr. Sasser admits the effort to get to Sydney was "premature."

Soon after, injuries dogged Cress, but he continued to compete off and on for the Marshall Islands in Pacific regional events.

Again, in 2004, the Marshalls were denied a chance to send athletes to Athens. Cress saw his dream fading. Sasser and other Marshall Islands Olympic officials continued their lobbying.

On Feb. 9, 2006, the IOC recognized the Marshall Islands National Olympic Committee and approved it for participation in Beijing. On the other side of the world, Cress heard the news. But, by now, he was a father, a husband, and an administrative assistant at North View Junior High in Brooklyn Park, Minn.

"I was on to other things," he says.

• • •

Still, with limited training, he competed for the Marshall Islands at the 2006 Micronesia Games, winning a bronze medal in the 100 meters and the gold in the 200 meters, competing against athletes from nations like Chuuk and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Soon after, there was silence from the newly formed Marshallese Olympic Committee. Cress assumed another glitch. "It was kind of like a tease," says Mr. Minor, Cress's coach. "I think he thought the opportunity was gone again."

Then, last month, Sasser told Cress he would run for the Marshalls in Beijing. He would compete in the 100-meter dash, a marquee event. Cress will be joined on the five-person Marshalls team by a high school girl runner, two swimmers, and a tae kwon do player. "The truth of the matter is a lot of these guys, including myself, don't deserve to be there," Cress says. "I mean, the whole Olympics could take athletes out of the United States alone. But, you know, it's more about the spirit of the Games. It's more a Games of unity than athletics sometimes."

Cress doesn't want it to become a Games of embarrassment. "I hope there are no Americans in my heat," he says, laughing, "because that'll be televised." And he'll be way back in the pack.

So why do it? Why go and possibly finish last, all in the blur of a few seconds?

"Because they asked," says Cress. "Due to loyalty and respect to my country, to my heritage. They've done a lot for me and I feel it's giving back. Maybe I'll run well. I'm still competitive for the Pacific [region]. They still want me because there's no one else to pick from. There's nobody else to choose from. I've got to go."

Plus, during the eight times he's visited the Marshalls since leaving as an infant or competed in other islands in Micronesia, he's felt a special, inexplicable feeling. "Even though I was raised in Minneapolis, and Minnesota has always been home for me, when I go there, I really feel like I'm home," Cress says of his birthplace. "I don't know why. It doesn't make any sense to me. But the Marshall Islands feel like home."

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