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Hurdling all obstacles

Former USF hurdler Kemel Thompson has his sights set on representing Jamaica in his second Olympic Games.

Thompson, ranked third in the world in the 400-meter hurdles by the International Association of Athletics Federations, finished fourth in his first-round heat at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, just .78 seconds short of qualifying for the semifinal. Thompson is likely to earn a spot on the Jamaican track team for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, where the 29-year-old expects to improve on his 2000 showing.

“(Competing at Sydney) was weird because the conditions there made competing difficult,” Thompson said. “Because the weather was different (in Sydney in September and October), a lot of the best runners were struggling because (the cool weather caused cramping).”

Thompson, 29, is one of two Olympians to have trained at USF under track and field coach Greg Thiel. The other was Jamaican sprinter Llewelyn Bredwood, who graduated in 2000 and also ran at Sydney.

Thiel said Track and Field News would likely pick Thompson to medal.

Thompson has remained close to Thiel since graduating. He was an assistant coach with the team for two years after graduation before moving to England.

“(Thiel) is like a second father to me,” Thompson said. “I was lucky to have him as a coach, and even now I call him when I need to talk to someone or to tell him how I’m doing.”

Thompson was at the track and field team’s practice Friday. Thiel said Thompson’s presence left a significant impression, both on himself and on the team.

“That, in a nutshell, is why I love coaching,” Thiel said. “The relationships you form with the students is great, and I feel the same way about Kemel. (Meeting Thompson) blows (the team) away. A couple of the guys asked for his autograph, and everyone was excited to have him there.

“That is why he is gold for the program. The team sees what he has become, and our athletes realize they can do that, too.”

However, Thiel downplays his role in Thompson’s development, and said he doesn’t want to benefit from Thompson’s success.

“We don’t bring up (Thompson’s time at USF) much (in recruiting),” he said. “I don’t want to take too much credit for Kemel and Llewelyn’s success.

“It was their own burning desire that allowed them to reach to levels they have.”

Thiel admitted, however, that he did have a small influence on Thompson’s career.

Thompson was an assistant to Thiel until 1998, when the coach realized Thompson’s talents were going to waste.

“I encouraged him to go to England to further his career,” Thiel said. “Sometimes, change is what is best for someone. He needed to get out of here and put his talents to use, and it was my responsibility (as a coach) to put my ego aside and let him do what was best for him.”

Thiel said Thompson did not immediately impress him upon his arrival in 1996, but the athlete’s work ethic won him over.

It was that dedication, Thiel said, that brought Thompson to the level he has reached.

“I’m kind of like a mechanic in a pit,” Thiel said. “I saw it happen and I understand what makes it work, but it’s still not me but the car doing the hard work. Kemel is great because of his own determination, not mine.”

Thompson ran his final race of 2003 earlier this month, and has begun training for next year.

His 2004 season will unofficially begin with some indoor races in February, but Thompson said his season will not really open until March with a race in California.