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.
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.
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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.
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."
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.
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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."