NC A&T held a press conference Tuesday for its pair of Olympic stars – grad student Trevor Stewart and rising junior Randolph Ross Jr. – who made school history returning home from the 2020 Tokyo Games with two track gold medals and a bronze.
The Olympic stars won gold medals as part of the U. S. 4×400 meter relay team while Stewart also won a bronze medal as part of the 4×400 mixed relay team that finished third. The pair, the first in NC A&T history to win Olympic medals and the only HBCU athletes to medal at this year’s Olympics, put those medals on display and talked about their experience in Tokyo at the press conference.
Though they’re proud to display the medals, they are not the most comfortable being worn around the neck. The gold medal weighs over one pound while the bronze is just under a pound.
“Since I’ve been back in the states, I’ve been asked to take pictures with the medals and wear them,” Stewart said. “It’s been kind of a tearful experience because they’re both extremely heavy. They don’t seem that heavy but you look on the side and they’re definitely thicker than what you expect and they definitely weigh a lot more that what you would think.”
“Yeah, they’re most definitely different than the ones we usually get,” said Ross.
The Olympic stage
The Olympic experience taught both a lot.
“The Olympics, by itself, is a major stage to be on,” said Ross, who qualified in the Olympics open 400 meters but did not advance past the opening round. “I’m just thankful for having an opportunity to go there and compete. Although the whole meet didn’t go exactly as planned, just being there in itself is an amazing opportunity.
“After what happened in the open (400), being able to run and represent the United States in the relay and come home with a gold medal, is a great feeling.”
“I can say the experience over there was eye-opening, and more like an out-of-body experience,” said Stewart, who ran the first leg in both rounds of the mixed relay (involving two men and two women runners), an event held for the first time in Tokyo.
He then ran the first leg in the preliminary round of the men’s 4×4. Ross Jr. ran the second leg in that preliminary round where the U. S. team finished first in 2:57.7. Another quartet of 400 runners brought home the gold medal in the finals in 2:55.70.
“The main thing I had to focus on was running my leg on the relay as best as I possible could,” Stewart explained. “Depending on which leg they put me on, which happened to be first, twice, to make sure I put them in as much of an advantage to be able to extend on it. That’s what I did.”
Being amongst Olympic stars
Neither was star-struck from being surrounded by elite athletes from all over the world. The 19-year old Ross Jr. however, did say he had a reality check. But his was at the U. S. Olympic Trials.
“The week before I ran a new PR (personal record of 43.85 at the NCAA championships) and was basically in the same spot as everybody else,” he said. “But coming in and seeing (35-year olds) Allyson Felix and LeShawn Merrit, the people we used took up to on TV when we were kids growing up, seeing them and actually being on the line with them was just a different experience.
”When I saw LeShawn Merritt, I didn’t think it was him at first. Then, we started warming up, and you start noticing that these people are actually real, and they’re right here.”
How they got to Tokyo
Ross Jr. and Stewart made the U. S. Olympic team and earned their trip to Tokyo after finishing third and fourth in the 400 meters respectively at the trials in Eugene, Oregon. It earned Ross Jr. a spot in the open 400 in Tokyo and Stewart into the pool of runners for the 4×400 relays.
The Trials were only one week after the pair led the NC A&T men to an unprecedented third-place finish at the NCAA Div. I Outdoor Track & Field championships, also in Eugene. Ross Jr. won the national championship in the 400 meters in a world-best time of 43.85. Stewart finished fourth in 44.96. They ran the last two legs of the Aggies 4×400 relay team that also took home the NCAA championship.
Their greatest Olympic memory
Their experience in the relay races were the things they will remember most about their Olympic experience, but for different reasons.
Stewart said the mixed relay had the most lasting impression on him because he made new connections and new friends.
“We all had the same like-minded mindset and the same interests. It was a great experience meeting more people that have the same interests but do different events,” he said.
Ross Jr. talked about the array of talented runners that joined him in the relay races.
“We had an outstanding 4×4 just in our school (NC A&T) alone. But going there and being able to compete in the 4×4 with people who are just as talented and train just as hard as you. It was definitely different going out there and running 2:57 compared to the (record-setting) 2:59 and 3-flat we’ve been running all year that’s basically been the star of the show.
“So going out there and running that fast, it was most definitely memorable.”
In Tokyo, both stayed in the high rise that housed the U. S. team in the Olympic Village, though not in the same suite. Ross was accompanied to Tokyo by his father, Duane Ross, the director of NC A&T’s six track and field programs. They were both coached by University of Florida head track coach Mike Holloway who headed the U. S. track and field team.
Having a teammate close made a difference said Ross Jr. COVID-19 protocols however cut down on what could be done.
“It was more comfortable,” said the soft-spoken Ross of having Stewart nearby. “I had my dad there but he wasn’t allowed on the village. So it was really just me and Trevor. So it was nice having somebody that you don’t really have to go out of your comfort zone to meet or introduce yourself to and having somebody that understands and has been basically doing the same thing you’ve been doing for the last three or four years.”
“It was definitely closed off from the rest of the world,” Stewart said of life in the Village. “Everyone had their own high rise. It was the U. S. in one area and the next 20 or 30 steps over it would be Mexico or some other country. So, we were like all here in this one area but we were all separated due to COVID. I had no problem with it because, it’s a pandemic.”
The Olympic 400 meters
Under the watchful eye of his father, a former world-class hurdler who participated in the 110-meter hurdles at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Ross Jr. finished fourth in his opening round heat in the 400 meters falling .03-hundedths of a second from advancing to the second round. He drew the outside lane – lane nine – meaning he ran the entire race without being able to pace himself off other runners.
“The one thing I have to work on is running within myself and not having to base my speed off of anybody else,” said Ross Jr. “I have to focus on me and not everything around me.
“After the open 400, I was more upset than he was,” the younger Ross said of his father’s reaction. “That’s literally what I’ve been training for my whole life. So being able to go out there and not running to where I was fully capable, was more upsetting to me than him. He was more of a support system, that was getting my head focused and getting ready for the upcoming relays that we had next.”
An Olympic lesson
Ross Jr. said he also heard, surprisingly for the first time, of his father’s experience in Athens, where he also went in highly ranked but did not make it out of the first round.
“He was disappointed in (his) outcome and he was talking about how it can affect athletes mentally and it can also ruin careers if they don’t go about it the right way. So, he was making sure that I was together, focused and didn’t let one bad race mess up the rest of my career. And it helps. And the relay brought back the confidence that may have been missing after the open.”
Olympic celebrity and NIL
As an Olympic gold medal winner, Ross Jr. is expected to be able to take advantage of the new NCAA policy of allowing college athletes to make money off their Name, Image and Likeness, known as NIL. He sees the advantages and opportunities it presents.
“It allows, not only track and field but every other sport where all the athletes have been struggling for years trying to obey certain rules saying we can’t make money off of who we are in the sport we train so hard for, basically to provide money for everybody else.
“It also allows us to finally remain in school and not have to sign a contract too early. We can move at our own pace and do stuff as we want without having to worry of any consequences of, am I going to be missing out of a contract or any deals. I gan get an extra year to stay in school, get my education and continue to do what I enjoy most.”
Ross Jr. said his father is handling any endorsements.
“We just got back. So, we’re trying to go as slow as possible. School starts back tomorrow, so we’ve got other stuff to focus on. And whenever he thinks it’s time for the right deal or to sign, then I’ll listen to him and we’ll talk about it.”
Olympic stars future: Trevor Stewart
The two young men will now head off in different directions.
Stewart, who graduated from NC A&T In 2020 with a degree in liberal studies pursued a minor this past school year, has finished his collegiate eligibility and is considered a professional track athlete. He is currently fielding offers from prospective sponsors and will soon be making a decision. He hinted that the pro contract will likely be outside the state of North Carolina.
“As of right now, I am in the process of solidifying some deals,” he said. “So, after that I’ll be in the process of travelling and doing my favorite thing.”
The gold medal will net him 1/7th ($5,357.14) of the $37,500 paid to U.S. gold medal relay team members. He’ll also receive 1/7th ($2,142.85) of the $15,000 for bronze medal relay winners.
Ready for the next challenge
“For the longest time since I came to A&T, it was definitely a home,” said Stewart. “So it gave me a whole lot of sense of self and an understanding of the world around me, as well. I believe it’s ran its course. It’s time for me to branch out into the world and see what the world has for me.
“It (the Olympic experience) was another stepping stone for me. It’s definitely a confidence-booster to come back with two medals, let alone one by itself. But I don’t let it go to my head. My main thing is to stay focused on myself because I have great people behind me that want me to succeed. So, every step of the way, it’s always been do things this way, work harder and I have a whole plan for it. I’ve got a lot more to do, a lot more medals to win and continue to have fun.
“I’ve always held myself on a high regard though I never really showed it. This only shows that I’m just hitting the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot more in me and I know I can do a lot more from here. It’s just one big step and I’m going to keep going forward.”
Olympic stars future: Randolph Ross Jr.
Ross Jr. is set to begin classes this week at A&T and looking forward to competing over the next two seasons for the Aggies.
“My confidence going forward is higher than ever,” said Ross Jr., who had the nation’s best time in the 400 meters indoors as a freshman and outdoors as a sophomore. “It shows that not only are we capable of doing anything, but as long as we continue our training and continue doing everything we’re supposed to be doing going into years forward, we’re going to be the people that are going to be the problem in the future.
”We both hold each other accountable. We know what our own expectations are and we know what we’re capable of. Going into the future we have to make sure we do everything to our best capababilities. We both have promising careers and a lifelong friendship and hopefully we can keep competing against each other in meets like the Olympics. So as we get older and branch out to he world, there’s no telling what we can accomplish.”
Neither experienced the opening ceremony at the Olympics. Stewart did stick around for the closing festivities.
“Once everything was over and the closing ceremony was the only thing left, it was time for me to come home,” Ross Jr. said. “I’ve been training and running since August, September of a year before. It was time for my season to come to an end.”
The last time solid gold medals were used in the Olympics was 1912 at the Games in Stockholm. However, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has specific standards for each medal’s content. Gold medals, must contain at least 6 grams of pure gold while silver medals have to be about 93.5% silver. Bronze medals are made with red brass, meaning 95% copper and 5% zinc.
Tokyo Olympic Gold medals weigh 556 grams (1.22 pounds). Silver medals weigh 550 grams (1.21 pounds) and bronze medals weigh 450 grams (0.99 pounds).