From the Olympics to the River: Coach James Carter describes championships, pro career, coaching

May 8 was the third annual “Coach Carter Day” to honor the Riverside Coach’s accomplishments and service to young athletes. The day was enacted in 2021 by then mayor Steve Schewel to celebrate the former Olympian.

On a Friday morning before the lunch bell rang, as he described winning international competitions and meeting world-famous athletes like Lebron James, Serena Williams, and Dwayne Wade, James Carter handed freshmen their laptops from a pile on his desk and fixed a teacher’s email account. 

In the small corner in the Media Center’s office where Coach Carter is holed away, it would be hard to figure out he was a former Olympian. 

If you went to get your Chromebook fixed and talked to Carter, you’d probably never know the Riverside hurdles and sprints coach and technical support assistant is a two-time Olympian, a 3-time national champion, and an IAFF World Cup champion. 

You’d probably never know that black and white picture taped to his wall, the only indication by his desk of his athletic career, was from his race to qualify for the 2005 Helsinki World Championship, where he won the international silver medal in the 400m hurdles.

Meet Coach James Carter.

Carter’s earliest track memory is being beaten by the girls on his local rec team. 

Long before he was coaching Riverside runners or competing internationally, he began running age-group track when he was just ten years old in his hometown of Baltimore. Carter’s next-door neighbor saw him running around his neighborhood and suggested he join the local team at the recreational center that her daughter ran for. The team was mostly girls, and Carter, being a self-described arrogant ten-year-old, thought he’d be faster. 

“I [thought I could beat them], not knowing some of these girls were ranked nationally at the time,” Carter said. “So when I started working out, they were mopping the floor with me. I didn’t like that too much, but it just made me work harder.”

That competitiveness kept Carter running. In high school, he won back-to-back Gatorade Player of the Year awards in Maryland. And later, after letters from colleges started to come in during his junior year, Carter committed to run track for Hampton University, an HBCU in Virginia.

Carter crouches at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Photo courtesy of: James Carter

Despite his newly packed university schedule and the big change in his practice routine, Carter loved his time running for the Hampton Pirates. In college, he was able to compete against some of the major schools, while being in an environment comfortable for him.

“I could have went to a big school and probably would have had more resources and facilities and things but I was happy where I was that close to home,” Carter said. “Nice campus, small, everybody kind of knew each other. I enjoyed it.”

At Hampton, Carter became Hampton’s first Division-I All-American.

After graduating, he jumped into his professional career quicker than he jumped hurdles. Going into the Olympics in 2000, just 5 weeks after his graduation, there was barely any time for him to adjust to international competition.

“At one point, you’re competing locally and it’s like up and down the East Coast… and now you have to get used to different time zones,” Carter said. “Then you’re flying over to Europe, where it’s six hours ahead. That’s the most difficult part.”

“It’s a one-shot deal. You’re training at that point for years for a 48-second race. That’s pretty tough.”

james carter

While the adjustment had to be quick, his preparation for the Olympic games was years in the making. Qualifying was a whole nother deal.

“It only comes around every four years, so everything you do up until that point is in preparation for that, and it’s a one-shot deal,” Carter said. “You’re training at that point for years for a 48-second race. That’s pretty tough.”

After placing third in the final qualifying race, just making the cut, Carter was officially an olympian and traveled with the United States team to Sydney, Australia for the 2000 Olympic games. 

One of his most vivid memories is walking out with the team during the iconic opening ceremonies.

“It’s not something you can really explain,” Carter said. “It was just surreal, just walking amongst stars and other athletes that I’d watched or heard about just years before. I’m now walking with Venus and Serena [Williams], Kevin Garnett, Vince Carter.”

His 2000 Olympics appearance was memorable in more ways than one. Two weeks before his race, Carter was reading a popular Track and Field magazine that predicted he would finish 10th in the 400 meter hurdles. It was just the added motivation the young runner was looking for.

“I kind of took it personally,” Carter said. “I took that as motivation as I was training, gearing up for it. So when I made the final, I was like: ‘good, I proved y’all wrong’.”

Though his finish exceeded expectations, Carter placed fourth, just 0.24 seconds short of a medal. While he just missed the olympic podium, the performance jump-started his professional career. Two years later Carter claimed gold in the NACAC under-25 championships in San Antonio. Coincidentally, Riverside health teacher and now Carter’s co-track coach Jason Smoots won a gold in the same meet in the 100 meters.

Carter went on to win a World Cup gold medal in Brazil, another gold medal in San Antonio and a silver in Monte Carlo, Monaco. He finished fourth again in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece. But no race stands out more in his mind than the World Championships in 2005. 

In the sixth year of his professional career, his two fourth-place finishes in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics stung. Twice he made it to the final and twice he fell just one place short of a medal. 

Picture it. A rainy day in Helsinki, Finland. Yet again, years of training for 48 seconds. The race had already been delayed almost four hours because it was pouring rain. It finally stopped at 11pm, and the runners lined up to race. 

Right as he heard ‘take your mark’, it started raining again, this time “a torrential downpour, ” Carter said. But they wouldn’t stop the race again unless there was thunder or lightning, so he had to go. 

What was going through Carter’s head? Everything that led up to that moment: the disappointment of the 2004 Olympics, the pressure of competing for his first major championship medal, and all the hours he’d spent preparing for these 48 seconds in Helsinki.

“People counted me out because I was 27. They said I was getting old,” Carter said. “Just thinking about all the things you did leading up to it…all of that hard work I put in training in the rain. And remembering disappointments. Remembering what it felt like to win back in high school and college.”

Through the rain and the memories of disappointing past finishes, Carter ran the fastest race of his career. He won the silver medal in the World Championship, and his time remains the twentieth-fastest 400m hurdle ever in history and the eleventh-fastest in the US.

Carter holds an American flag at the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki. Carter placed 2nd in the World Championships, earning himself his first major international championship medal. Photo courtesy of: James Carter

Looking back on his 9-year career, Carter is satisfied with what he’s accomplished. Early in his career he set 10 goals he wanted to achieve. Among them: get a world championship medal, be one of the best in the US, get a better contract from Nike, and win an Olympic medal. 

Looking back now, after retiring in 2009, he said the only goal of the 10 that he didn’t achieve was that Olympic medal. 

“I don’t really miss it,” Carter said. “I’ve been doing it since I was 10, I accomplished a lot.I met some great people that I can talk to now, awesome coaches that I’ve learned from, people all over the world. I got to travel the world for free. So I feel good about it.”

By the time he retired, Carter had already done some volunteer coaching at his alma mater Hampton, and UNC-Chapel Hill, so the former Olympian wasn’t totally new to the coaching game after he threw in the towel. 

In 2013, Carter found his way to a coaching job at Hillside, where he unknowingly joined Coach Jason Smoots, a long-time friend of his whom he had competed with 11 years prior. Smoots ran track at NCCU, where he won six Division-II national championships and was an eight-time All-American. Carter remembers meeting him for the first time at the 2002 World Cup, where they both won their respective events. 

Carter at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Photo courtesy of James Carter

After coaching with Smoots for three years at Hillside, Carter followed him to his new job at Riverside. Smoots, who currently teaches Health & PE, coaches the sprinters for Riverside’s track team, while Carter coaches both the sprinters and the hurdlers. 

Carter appreciates being able to continue his relationship with Smoots as co-coaches and values their shared experience having both run at HBCUs and professionally.

“It’s lovely,” Carter said. “We come from two similar backgrounds… So when it comes to when we prepare the kids now, there’s rarely a discussion where we disagree. It makes it easier because it’s almost like we’re on the same wavelength.”

Shortly after following Smoots to Riverside to be a coach, he came to the school for his CPR training. That morning he was asked if he was interested in the job and he said ‘“sure”.

“It just kind of fell in my lap,” Carter said. “I had to come here anyway for track, so I just get to be here just a little bit earlier, still working and coaching, so it just works.”

“I find more joy now, coaching, than I do as a competitor. Now, it’s not about me. When I walk into practice, I check my ego at the door, because it’s about me helping all these other kids.”

James Carter

His favorite coaching moment: helping his athletes prove people wrong. 

“I’ve had kids that I watched other coaches wash their hands with because they didn’t have enough belief in them, and I’ve taken them and turned them into All-Americans,” Carter said. “It’s been quite a ride, I don’t know if I can pick just one.”

Carter’s been a Pirate at heart since he was an 18-year-old Pirate at Hampton University. Now, as a Pirate again at Riverside, it’s a no-brainer which one he prefers. 

“I find more joy now, coaching, than I do as a competitor,” Carter said. “Now, it’s not about me. When I walk into practice, I check my ego at the door, because it’s about me helping all these other kids. So I feel better about being a pirate here [Riverside] than I do when I was running in college, so that’s an easy one for me.”

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