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The last lap

A tragic death on the track leaves many questions

Posted: Friday December 7, 2007 4:01PM; Updated: Friday December 7, 2007 4:01PM
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By David Epstein, SI.com

It was Feb. 12, 2000 and spectators were standing in the Evanston Township (IL.) High School fieldhouse for a better look. Runners paced back and forth anxiously along the indoor track. Junior Kevin Richards had just taken a close second in the indoor mile to Dan Glaz, a top Illinois runner from Amos Alonzo Stagg High, and now Richards was down. Not that it was altogether novel for an exhausted runner to slink to the floor after a hard race, but Kevin had too much heart for that, his teammates figured. And that was the problem. He had 1.2 pounds of disease-enlarged heart, to be exact, nearly twice the weight of a normal heart.

Kevin had never before lay down after a race. Not during his freshman year at Evanston Township High , when I trained with him as a senior. And not during his sophomore year when he helped Evanston to its first Illinois state title in the 4x800-meter relay with one of the top 10 times in the nation. Kevin addressed his aches in silence, and always, always, standing up. "I love being sore," he once told me. "It feels like you did something."

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But on that day, Kevin flopped to the dusty, green rubber track. It was the first sign of his hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a genetic disease that is the most common killer of young athletes during exertion, and which causes the wall of the heart's left ventricle to enlarge. The left-ventricle is the heart chamber that takes oxygenated blood from the lungs and squeezes shut violently, sending it careening through the body. It's the strong man of the heart, and no one could have guessed that Kevin's strong man was sick, least of all me.

From the first time I ever ran with him, I knew he was a rare talent. I was running 50-60 miles a week in the summer before my senior year, and he was an incoming freshman who had hardly begun training. And yet, I still could not shake him on our first run together as we flew along the rock-strewn shore of Lake Michigan. I remember his arms cutting smooth arcs through the air. Each of his steps was identical, as if his knees were linked by a metal bar, one like the side rod that connects the churning wheels of a locomotive. He raced me to the last step that day, as he would many other days, leaving both of us doubled-over and searching for air. Initially, it annoyed me that a freshman would dare push the pace in practice, but Kevin had a passion for racing, and it often didn't matter whether it was the state championship or just another day by the lake.

When Gwendolyn Richards got the call that paramedics were working on her son, she was serving food at the nursing home where she worked long hours --that's how she paid for the computer Kevin needed to nourish his dream of becoming a programmer, and the first in his family of Jamaican immigrants to go to college. Just two months before he collapsed, I was home from Columbia University for Christmas break, and we talked about where Kevin might take his talent. Indiana University was high on his list, and, as a state champ and honors student, he was excited to entertain scholarship offers. Kevin's parents, Rupert and Gwendolyn, were reluctant to bank on athletics, so they had been attending financial aid seminars. Kevin told them to stop. "You aren't paying a penny for me," he told his mother. But he never got to go. That bell lap on that fateful February day was the last lap of Kevin's life, his fate sealed even before the finish line.

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