Before he settled into his blocks, he thought of him, and tried his best to hold back the tears.
It was Sunday afternoon in New York, and Jereem Richards couldn’t help think how Deon Lendore – his close friend and long-time teammate with Trinidad and Tobago – was supposed to be in this race.
But instead the 29-year-old was gone, the three-time Olympian killed in a car accident just a few weeks earlier – his career, his life, expired so tragically early that it was still too terrifying a truth to comprehend.
In those pre-race moments, his mind a raging storm of emotion, Richards thought of what Lendore might say.
“I heard Deon’s voice in my head,” he says. “It was like, ‘Boy, you have to run a race! Get your mind together. Don’t think about me too much’.”
This was something Richards did many times in the weeks before the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix, picturing what Lendore might say if he was watching him unleash all those tears.
“Knowing the type of funny, smiling person he was, I know he wouldn’t want us to be sad for too long,” says Richards. “I know he’s probably looking down at us, and when I was crying he was probably saying, ‘What are you crying for?’ He was that type of guy and now, when I think about him, it makes me smile, it makes me laugh.”
To understand what Lendore meant to Richards, you have to go back to 2009. Lendore was 16 at the time and already competing internationally for Trinidad and Tobago. Richards was a couple of years younger, looking to Lendore as a trailblazer. They were teammates for the first time at the 2010 Carifta Games and, ever since, Lendore was “an inspiration, a brother” to Richards.
“I could call on him at any point in time and he’d be there, giving you advice and helping you out.”
A few years later they became members of the same athletics club – Abilene Wildcats in Arima – and would train together when Lendore was back home between semesters at Texas A&M University. In the NCAA Lendore was making a name as one of the world’s most promising talents, winning the Bowerman Award in 2014 after capturing NCAA indoor and outdoor titles over 400m.
“Seeing the breakthroughs and victories, the impact he made in college, it showed me a path to success,” says Richards. “Deon was the pioneer. He wrote the master plan and showed it to us. ‘If someone from my country, a small country, can do this, I can do it too.’ He ignited a fire in so many of my generation: we believed anything was possible.”
Richards followed a similar path as Lendore to the NCAA, studying at South Plains College in Texas and then the University of Alabama, where he lowered his 200m best to 19.97 before turning professional in 2017.
In the years since, Lendore remained based at Texas A&M, where he worked part-time as a volunteer assistant coach, while Richards trained with Lance Brauman’s group in Florida – the two staying in touch all the time.
“He was a good mentor, you could call him and tell him you’re running a 400, ask him to help you out with a race plan,” says Richards. “When I made my first (national) team, I was scared, but he’d say something to make you laugh, encourage you and make you focused on your performance for your country, your teammates, your family.”
Over the years they went to multiple championships together, most recently the Tokyo Olympics, where Lendore was fourth in the 400m semi-final and Richards eighth in the 200m final, the pair then teaming up to help Trinidad and Tobago to eighth in the 4x400m final.
“Deon was the first person I’d love to see on (international trips) because he’d always make you laugh,” says Richards. “You’d always hope he’s in the same apartment as you because he was the life of the party. Everyone would come to whatever room he was in and chill out.”
Richards remembers Lendore’s habit of always taking snacks with him wherever he went, or hauling around his Normatec recovery leggings. Whether they were together or apart, they’d bond through a shared love of computer games, playing FIFA or Fortnite.
“He was a clutch player in Fortnite,” laughs Richards. “If all his teammates died out, he was the one to win the game for us.”
Lendore was like that on the track, too.
One of Richards’ favourite memories is the 2019 World Relays in Yokohama, where they powered Trinidad and Tobago to victory in the 4x400m.
“He ran the hell out of that,” says Richards. “One thing I always remember, regardless of what lane, what leg, Deon was always going to sacrifice himself and give 100% for everyone on the team.”
At the 2018 World Indoor Championships in Birmingham, Trinidad and Tobago drew lane one in the final and Lendore could sense his teammates’ blues once that news came through.
“Deon was like, ‘Don’t worry about it, I’ll get the baton to you in good position’,” says Richards. “He gave it to me in third from lane one, which is very difficult, but knowing you have a teammate willing to do that gives you the motivation to do the same.”
It was Monday, 10 January when Richards’ world was turned upside down – one of his and Lendore’s training partners calling him to tell him about the three-car crash Lendore had been in on his way home from practice. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
Richards could only think of one thing during that call: “This can’t be true.”
While they were speaking, his coach from back home was also trying to call and that’s when reality set in.
“I realised: this might be true,” says Richards. “I was afraid to answer the phone. When I did, the first thing I said to the coach was, ‘Please tell me it’s not true.’ He said, ‘Yes, it’s true.’”
In the days after, Richards was contacted by a number of journalists, all apologetically asking for comment, but he simply couldn’t summon the words to pay tribute to his friend. Only now, several weeks later, does he feel ready to speak about Lendore’s passing.
“Outside of my real family, he’s the only person who can relate to my lifestyle as we have so many things alike,” he says. “It was definitely something very hard to deal with, but every day after I felt a little bit better.”
On Staten Island, New York, last month at the World Athletics Indoor Tour Gold meeting, Richards turned in a performance that would have made his friend most proud. He powered to the front at the bell, then held off a strong field to smash his indoor 400m PB and win in 45.83.
“It’s a blessing from God,” he says. “To give tribute to my friend Deon.”
In weeks and months ahead, he plans to do so more times, dedicating every performance this year to Lendore. He’ll next be on the start line at the World Athletics Indoor Championships Belgrade 22.
While he’d like to dabble in the 400m in the outdoor season and finally crack the 45-second barrier, he figures the 200m will remain his focus for the World Athletics Championships Oregon22.
“The goal is to be the best I can be, on and off the track,” he says. “I’ll do my best to finish on the podium every time I compete; I always want to put my name down in the history books.”
Much of that attitude was forged from his friendship with Lendore.
After the interview ends, the recording device switched off, Richards goes on to explain how the best way for those who knew Lendore to keep his spirit and legacy alive is to carry some of his traits in their everyday lives.
He then asks to turn the recorder back on, so one final point can be included.
“If you knew Deon Lendore, it was a blessing,” he says. “The effect he had on people was magical. He could make anyone smile, anyone laugh, anyone comfortable. People like him only come along once in a blue moon.
“He was a one-of-a-kind person.”