There’s nothing about Ricky Robertson that screams, “Olympic athlete.”
At a lean 5-foot-10, he’s not as tall as a basketball player. He doesn’t have the bulk of a shot putter or a swimmer’s V-shaped physique.
Yet Robertson, who lives and trains at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista and works a part-time job in El Cajon to help support his quest, is one of the most explosive athletes on the U.S. Olympic team that will compete in Rio de Janeiro this month.
The high jumper - who is several inches shorter than most elite jumpers - has cleared the bar at 7-foot-6. In most every meet he enters, Robertson is the one who looks destined to come up short.
“More than likely, if I’m not the shortest, I’m the second-shortest athlete jumping,” he said, laughing.
By high school, he could dunk a basketball. As a junior he jumped 7-3 in the high jump, the nation’s top prep mark that year.
Though he’s worked years at his craft, Robertson said his ability is “God-given.”
“That’s all I tell everybody,” he said. “It was just like out of nowhere. I started jumping incredibly.”
Competing in track and field, however, was not on his to-do list, and neither was the Olympics. He was more interested in football (he was a standout wide receiver) and basketball, but was pushed into track by his football coach, who also coached track. Once Robertson cleared 7-3, his focus changed.
“From there on, I thought, ‘Maybe I could make a living out of this,’” he said.
Long road to Rio
Robertson’s road to the Olympics has been long and full of twists.
He was an All-American at the University of Mississippi, where he did the high jump, long jump and triple jump. He won seven Southeastern Conference championships and was a three-time NCAA runner-up. He qualified for the Olympic Trials in 2012, but didn’t make the finals. He considers it a turning point.
2016 Summer Olympic Games
Opening Ceremonies: 7:30 p.m. Friday (delayed). Ch. 7/39
Closing Ceremonies: 4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 21 (delayed). Ch. 7/29
Where: Various locations around Rio de Janeiro
“I had my mind set that whatever it takes, I’m going to be an Olympian the next time,” he says.
He moved to the Olympic Training Center in 2014. He says he’s improved under coach Jeremy Fischer, yet injuries have cut short his recent outdoor seasons.
This June, just before the Olympic Trials at Eugene, Ore., Robertson jumped 2.29 meters (7 feet, 6 inches) at a competition at the OTC to meet the Olympic qualifying standard.
Then, at the Trials, he jumped 2.21 meters (7-3) to tie for sixth. But because he had achieved the qualifying standard - and the second-place finisher and those he was tied with hadn’t - he earned the No. 3 high-jump spot for Rio.
He was disappointed he didn’t finish in the top three to earn a spot outright, but was grateful to make the team.
“For the most part, I went and got what needed to be done,” said Robertson. “That was the ultimate goal, to make the team by any means necessary.” He says Fischer had to remind him he deserved it.
“He said I got the work done in the past and I should be proud of everything I’ve done to get to where I’m at now,” recalled Robertson.
To punch his ticket to Rio, Robertson, 25, not only had to perform on the track, but work to help fund his quest.
Some Olympians with big sponsorships don’t have to worry about getting a job, but Robertson - like the majority of athletes - isn’t one of them.
While in Mississippi, he worked at a warehouse, loading and unloading trucks for a furniture company. That was a challenge, with a 30-minute-plus drive to work and back, followed by training in the afternoons.
Since November, he’s been working part time at Dick’s Sporting Goods in El Cajon, selling shoes. He’s one of several athletes employed at the store -and across the nation - as part of the company’s sponsorship of the U.S. Olympic program. He has a flexible schedule that allows him to train, travel and compete. Balancing it all can be “overwhelming,” he says, but he enjoys it.
Many customers don’t know they’re talking to an elite athlete unless they read his ID card on the lanyard around his neck. His said, “My passion is track.” That’s when they start asking questions and discover he can outjump a kangaroo.
“They’re always surprised,” he said. “I want to say that most of the time they’re more excited for me than I am.”
But his excitement is rising. All the years of jumping have taken him to a new height. He’s going to the Games.
“Oh, man, it’s just like a brick off my chest,” he said. “I was so nervous going into the meet (trials). And I was so nervous during the meet. Man, it’s just a blessing.”