MISSOULA — Tucked away on a side wall in Paul Reneau’s office is a framed newspaper clipping of him crossing the finish line in a 100-meter dash.
Don’t be confused. The photo is actually of legendary Olympian Carl Lewis. But the way the photographer captured the scene, Lewis and Reneau, now an assistant track coach at Montana, are the only two competitors visible.
That picture is one of several meaningful pieces in Reneau’s office. There’s a photo of him setting a personal record in the 100-meter dash at Montana, there’s the nine dragon fly figurines — his spirit animal — and there’s the miniature United States flag in his pencil holder — a new decoration added when he became a US citizen last month.
But the photo of him and Lewis is the only piece of memorabilia the humble Reneau keeps in his office from his two Olympic appearances.
“That’s one of my pride and joys,” Reneau said, staring at the photo from a few feet away.
He represented Belize as a sprinter in 1984 and later competed in the 1987 Pan American Games and the 1988 Olympics as a velodrome cyclist.
Thirty years since his last Olympics, Reneau holds fond memories of his experiences in Los Angeles, Indianapolis and South Korea, despite early exits from competition and several mishaps.
Reneau’s love of sport began in Belize, where he spent his first 13 years. Gangs were starting up when he moved to Los Angeles, so he took the first opportunity to leave, accepting a scholarship to Montana to play football and run track.
He blew out a knee on the gridiron, but by his senior year, he placed fifth in the 100-meter dash at the Big Sky Conference outdoor championships. Three months later, he found himself at the LA Coliseum, competing in front of 102,000 people as a 23-year-old who represented a Belize team that didn’t have enough competitors to hold Olympic qualifying trials.
“That’s one of my greatest memories is the LA Coliseum and all those people,” Reneau said. “I got to be on national TV, and my family and friends and people here in Montana got to see me run. It was cool.”
Making the experience more special, he ran alongside Carl Lewis, who won four gold medals in 1984, in his opening heat. Prior gold medalist Hasely Crawford from Trinidad and Tobago was also in the same race.
Reneau had hyperextended his knees while training on the cinder track at Compton College, but he wasn’t going to sit out the Olympics.
“They would have had to cut my legs off for me to not run that day,” Reneau said. “I ran one of the slower times I’ve ever run. That was one of those sad pieces because I wasn’t at my best. It is what it is. But not too many people get to run in the Olympics.”
He still cherishes the experience and can poke fun at himself, even when he talked with Lewis for the first time at the NCAA West Regional in May.
“I said to him, ‘You probably don’t remember me, but we ran next to each other in the lanes — for about 30 meters,’” Reneau recalled. “He laughed.”
“He always says, ‘I didn’t get to race Carl Lewis,’” Paul’s son, Sterling Reneau, said. “He says, ‘I raced Carl Lewis’ dust.’”
An avid cycling fan growing up, Reneau made a serious commitment to competitive racing in March 1985 after he graduated from Montana.
By 1987, he represented Belize as a velodrome sprint cyclist in the Pan Am Games in Indianapolis. There, he raced inside a velodrome named in honor of Marshall “Major” Taylor, a sprint cyclist who dealt with racial segregation and in 1899 was the first African American to win a world championship.
“Racing at the Major Taylor Velodrome was inspirational to me,” Reneau said.
He was one spot short of moving out of the opening heat, finishing ninth. He and the racer who edged him, Ecuador’s Mario Pons, became friends.
Reneau qualified for the 1988 Olympics as a sprint cyclist and again found himself in a three-person, opening-round heat against two of the top competitors in the world: Canada’s Curt Harnett and Czechoslovakia’s Vratislav Šustr. He finished 20th out of 25 competitors on the African teakwood track.
He still keeps his original bicycle in his house, along with four other bikes: BMX, mountain, road and track bikes. He also has the original helmet his coach got him when he started, featuring a sticker of a skull with a snake weaving through the openings, which led to the nickname “Snake Reneau.”
“He got me that because I couldn’t ride a straight line to save my life,” Reneau said with a chuckle.
Turning 58 this year, Reneau holds handfuls of memories outside of his own competition.
In 1984, he was thrilled to watch Edwin Moses win his second gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles.
While the 1984 Olympics had a semblance of home, the road show of 1988 in Seoul, South Korea, produced some unique moments.
He was in awe to meet Turkish weightlifter Naim Süleymanoğlu, better known as Pocket Hercules because of his diminutive 4-foot-10 stature. The two traded pins with each other.
Then there was the time Reneau and his coach walked past Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson after a training session and noticed Johnson’s jaundiced eyes. Johnson went on the win the gold medal and lower his world record in the 100-meter dash, but he was stripped of the medal when he tested positive for a banned substance.
“Coach and I looked at each other, and we were like, ‘Wow,’” Reneau recalled of seeing Johnson. “We kind of knew that something was going on with him.”
At the opening ceremonies, Reneau and other athletes were given an autograph book. He got one signature from a fellow athlete before he realized he had no desire to collect any.
“It’s here,” Reneau said, patting his chest where his heart is. “To me, it’s about what I have inside. When I start losing my memory, then it’s gone. But still, that’s superficial, and I’m not superficial.”
He keeps a small scrapbook of his accomplishments.
Then there was the fireworks display at the closing ceremony, still vivid in his mind.
“I’ve seen some fireworks shows, but they don’t even compare. Don’t even compare,” Reneau reiterated. “I was mesmerized by that.”
Before his cycling competition in Korea, he lost his credential off his neck one day and left the Olympic village without realizing that. Concerned that he couldn’t get back in, he was relieved to find his credential had been turned in to the lost and found.
When he tried to leave after the Olympics, he couldn’t fly back to the US because he hadn’t brought his green card with him. His fiancé, who he married later that year, retrieved the identification to help him return home after an extra day and a half spent in South Korea.
Reneau doesn’t have to worry about that green card anymore. He became a United States citizen on June 21 and holds dual citizenship with Belize.
When Reneau was sworn in at Great Falls with the Pledge of Allegiance, it was the first time he put his hand over his heart, after decades of standing in respect of the USA national anthem at sporting events without the gesture.
“It was kind of cool to do that,” Reneau said, simulating putting his hand over his heart. “I’m blessed in a lot of ways. It’s now part of who I am.”
Since his second Olympic appearance 30 years ago, Reneau has trained athletes from the youth level to college, working with Montana’s sprinters and relay teams.
But he doesn’t go around bragging about his accomplishments.
“He’s a humble guy,” Griz track head coach Brian Schweyen said. “Good competitors and people who are confident don’t need to express past histories. He’s more interested in getting the people he’s involved with moving forward and getting the best out of them.”
That includes his son, Sterling, who competes for the Griz and won the 400-meter dash and 1600-meter relay at the 2017 Big Sky Conference Indoor Championships.
Sterling and Schweyen have heard their share of stories from Paul, but Paul doesn’t go out of his way to tell everyone he was an Olympian.
“That’s not something he gloats about, not something he throws around, not something he hangs his hat on,” Sterling said. “He doesn’t try to. He wants people to know him for him.”
However, if the topic of his Olympic appearances is brought up by someone else, Reneau has stories that can fill up well over an hour. And those stories usually start with his favorite one: running next to Carl Lewis at the 1984 Olympics.
“I’d rather be humble than braggadocious,” Reneau said. “That’s not the reason I competed in the Olympics. It’s just part of my history.”