A chance meeting with Olympian Jerome Romain helped Erison Hurtault realize he had the opportunity to compete for the Commonwealth of Dominica.
Hurtault, who was recently named NYU Cross Country and Track & Field Head Coach, was a freshman at Columbia University. Romain was interviewing for a position at the time. "I met him through the interview process," Hurtault recalled. "He was surprised I ran as fast as I did and wondered if I could qualify for Athens (2004 Summer Olympics)."
Hurtault was eligible to compete for Dominica because both of his parents were born there. Romain, the most successful international track and field athlete in the country's history, remembers meeting Hurtault in the interview process. "By virtue of his parents, he could represent Dominica at the highest level," he said. "We thought he had a chance. At the time, he thought it was a cool idea, but may not have thought that in a few years it would actually happen. I felt like he would be a great representative and maybe be our first medalist at the Olympic Games. If I played any part in him discovering he could compete for Dominica, I am glad to have been a part of it. He is such a great guy and very humble. You never know what a small gesture can do."
Romain reached the finals of the triple jump in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, but never got a chance to medal due to an injury he suffered in the previous round. In 1995, he won the triple jump at the Central American and Caribbean Championships, placed second in the Pan America Games, and finished third in the IAAF World Championships in Athletics in Sweden.
The road to international competition in track began in high school. "Speed was my asset," Hurtault said. "I had a drive to do track and ran year-round. I wanted to play basketball, but topping out at about 5 feet-10 inches, I knew it was a smarter move to put my time toward track and field. I wasn't one of the top guys in the country, but I was very competitive."
Determined to focus on academics and athletics, he decided to attend Columbia University. "The focus and what you do as an athlete really helps translate to being a good student," he said. "You are forced to make the right decisions as an athlete and as long as you are good with time management, you can succeed academically. The balance wasn't that much of a challenge for me. If I was competing well, I was on top of things in the classroom. It fit in very well. I like that combination, that challenge on both ends."
"I was a good recruit, but not great," Hurtault remembered. "I began to excel as an athlete. In my freshman year, I became one of the top 400-meter runners in the country along with (future Olympic relay gold medalist) Reggie Witherspoon and Domenik Peterson." In his rookie season, he lowered his previous best of 48.3 seconds a full two seconds to 46.3 seconds."
Romain ended up coaching against Hurtault as an assistant coach at Brown University. "I knew he could be an Olympian watching him compete," Romain stated. "He owned the Ivy League. There was no question he could meet the Olympic standard."
He finished his collegiate career as a two-time All-American, qualifying for the NCAA Division I Outdoor Track and Field Championships all four years and the indoor championship twice. Hurtault placed third at the 2007 NCAA Outdoor Championships in the 400 in a school-record time of 45.50 seconds. He was a member of the 3,000-meter relay team that captured Columbia's first Championship of America victory at the Penn Relays since 1938 (7:22.64). He was named a recipient of the Connie S. Maniatty Award, which recognizes the school's top male and female senior athletes.
L: Hurtault; R: Michael Mark, Liam Boylan-Pett, Hurtault, Jonah Rathbun at Penn Relays (Photo by Jay Talbott)
In his senior season, he met the Olympic "A" standard to qualify for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China. "At that point, I realized I could definitely go and compete internationally," he stated. Hurtault moved to Tallahassee to train and coach at Florida State University.
"Beijing was an incredible experience, shocking in a lot of ways," Hurtault said. "One thing was just going to China and the other was to be there with all these world-class track and field athletes. My biggest event previously was the NCAA championship. Track and field on the international level is bigger than in the U.S. The World Championships and of course the Olympics are a whole other level. It is like running in the Super Bowl."
Hurtault was aware of multiple aspects of the Olympic Games. "It was huge eye-opening experience. There was so much more going on to bring all those people together - the athletes and volunteers, the money involved, and the political atmosphere," Hurtault commented. "It gave me a view of what sports mean to people and what the Olympics mean to people. You get an idea of what someone else's life is like from every country in the world. I recall conversations with people from places I had never been and can't imagine ever going. I had the opportunity to speak with them and get their perspective."
What Hurtault remembers most vividly from Beijing was the night and morning leading up to his race. "It was the most nervous I have ever been for anything in my life," he laughed. "The night before I was watching a movie on my computer and my heart was just pounding. I had never experienced being fully at rest and feeling my heart pounding in my chest."
The first race was set for early the next morning and Hurtault slept 10-15 minutes a time, fearing he would not hear his alarm in the morning. When he got up in the morning, he felt ready, but he became unnerved again on his way to the cafeteria. "I saw Chris Brown from the Bahamas (who ended up missing out on a bronze medal by .04 seconds) heading to the track. Immediately in my mind, I thought I had completely miscalculated when to be at the track."
"Then another top runner was throwing up outside the cafeteria. I was thinking, 'What is going on here?' These are people with international medals. I wasn’t adequately assessing how serious this was. That threw me off. From that point until I got into the blocks, it was tough dealing with the nerves. The Olympic pressure is bigger than any other athletic event or far bigger than anything I had experienced."
"He was very nervous," recalled Romain, who served as the track and field coach for Dominica for the Beijing Olympics (and carried the country's flag in the opening ceremonies just as he did in 1996). "I told him 'You may not have been on this stage before, but you have run against some of these guys before. It is nerve-racking though. Part of it is just being at the Olympics, but another part is that you are not just running for yourself, but for an entire country."
Jerome Romain carrying the Dominica flag with Erison Hurtault behind him at 2008 Beijing Olympics
In between the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, Hurtault returned to Columbia as a volunteer assistant coach and continued training.
The 2012 London Summer Olympics were a much different experience for Hurtault. "I was very relaxed this time," he said. "I had been dealing with an injury much of that year, but was confident and understood what I was getting myself into. I had fun in both places, but just didn’t know a lot in Beijing. I was just a rookie right out of college."
Another difference in his second Olympic experience was, that as the most experienced athlete representing the country, he was chosen as the flag-bearer. "It was a fun and interesting experience, but I nearly missed out on it," he chuckled. "They line you up several hours before you enter the stadium. Right before you go in, they ask people if they need to use the bathroom. I really didn't have to, but thought maybe it was a good idea. The attendant grabs my arm and runs me down this long hallway and halfway down, I decided to run back. As I got nearer, I heard the officials screaming 'Dominica, Dominica, where are you?' I ran in as they handed me the flag. It was an awesome experience and a great chance to reconnect with my heritage."
Erison Hurtault carrying the Dominica flag in the 2012 London Olympics
"When I was younger, I had a distant relationship with the island," he added. "Now I am much closer to it. I have gotten to be a role model to some of the younger athletes there. The Olympics were a really good experience. It has connected me to so many people and allowed me to travel all over."
"One thing is that the talent is there in Dominica," Romain added. "We need to do a better job of harnessing that talent. We would like to see many more athletes and a large Olympic team."
Erison Hurtault competing at the 2012 London Olympics (Photo courtesy of alchetron.com)
Hurtault came to NYU as an assistant coach in the fall of 2014 and it is a perfect fit for his experience as a student-athlete. "It is why I like being at NYU and in the UAA," he said. "We uphold that type of balance. Athletics and academics are not antagonistic things. They can work well together if you want both. It is about making the best decision at the best time."
He definitely sees coaching as his passion. "I learned more and more in my experiences at Florida State and Columbia. I realized I want to coach," he said. "It is a rare opportunity to be responsible for something someone cares about so much, helping them reach their goals. Working with people who have other commitments and whose focus could be dedicated elsewhere is very rewarding. More and more experiences led me to believe this is what I want to do."
"He will do well coaching," Romain concluded. "He has the perfect personality and is always smiling. He will definitely give them what they need to do great things."
One of Hurtault's biggest supporters is recent NYU graduate Matt Powers, the 2016 UAA Indoor Track and Field Most Outstanding Performer in running events. "He has a blueprint for success and getting him long term really sets up the whole program for success," Powers said. "We tied our top UAA finishes in the indoor and outdoor championships this past season and his coaching was a huge part of that. He's a fantastic coach and understands student-athletes."