Omaha and Back Again: The Many Travels of Trevor Richards
Apr 20, 2020 12:19PM
By Chris Hatch
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
The funny thing about dots on a map: travelers who get enough of them end up making themselves a mosaic.
They go from point A to point B enough, and suddenly they’ve got an entire alphabet. One that doesn’t have 26 letters or even one language, but speaks to the innate humanity of our species’ desire to travel, to traverse.
Trevor Richards is a man whose adventures have created a work of roaming pointillism. His hemisphere-spanning exploits may not always start in the same place, but usually end back where they began: Omaha, Nebraska.
While this town isn’t his first home, it is the place in the United States where the South Africa native first landed with his family when he was 10 years old. His father, a surgeon, decided to move the four-generation South African family from Johannesburg to Omaha in search of new opportunities.
It wasn’t easy, at first. “The move to America was definitely tough. We went straight from the sun-soaked, bustling city of Johannesburg and came cruising in over the snow-covered cornfields of the Midwest,” Richards said.
As excited as he was for new opportunities, there was a learning curve for Richards that arced through food, language, and culture.
He did speak one language that has neither dialect nor inflection; that crosses borders and fences and the jagged two-dimensional walls inked onto a map: sports. It was this currency, so widely known and accepted in the state of Nebraska, that helped to ease the transition.
The rugby player saw his own love of fluid aggression and a unified team driving towards their goal reflected back in the mirror of his new home.
“Watching rugby on Saturdays with my dad and brother was one of my better memories from childhood,” Richards said. “Much like Cornhusker football in Nebraska, the Springboks are almost holy to some. South African boys grow up coveting the jersey and [the] honor that is bestowed upon it.”
Never one to turn down a challenge, Richards threw himself into his new life in this new place, and it didn’t take long for him to find his niche. He would go on to star at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the late 2000s as a captain on the rugby team, and by 2009 had climbed the ranks to the USA Sevens National Team. The Sevens refers to a team made up of seven athletes playing seven-minute halves, whereas rugby is usually played with 15 athletes playing 40-minute halves.
Then, injury struck.
Shortly after playing for the United States in a tournament in Fiji, Richards had to have a career-ending surgery. He wasn’t able to play his beloved sport anymore. He quickly found that he didn’t need to be on the pitch to be in the action. He found a new way to be around the sport that he loved.
“I first considered coaching as an avenue towards the later stages of my college career. I was such a fan of the game and generally understood it better than most, so much that I was often one of the players directing and instructing my teammates during matches,” he said. “I was further encouraged by the idea that I had so many volunteer rugby coaches over the years that I felt a slight responsibility to pay it back.”
His new profession came with a built-in nomadic quality that suited him well, and he took jobs all over the country as a coach. In between, he still found time to explore.
From the time he was a little boy, he had been raised to seek the untamed side of life.
“When the boys (her sons) were about 8 and 9 years old, we took a weeklong trip through a game preserve on foot,” said his mother, Karen Richards. “It was just us and the two guides.”
Much like his grandfather, a man whose exploits included a perilous stint as a gold miner that took him through the wildest parts of Africa, Richards determined that he would use his home in Nebraska not as a permanent, staid location, but as a kind of basecamp for the boomerang journeys that took him out and back.
“We took them on safari, at least three to four times a year. For them, it was just a way of life,” Karen said. “They always went camping and canoeing.”
When he wasn’t coaching, he traveled—and traveled. He did the kinds of things that you only see in beer commercials and quickly brush off as pure Anheuser-Busch propaganda.
He traversed east. He wandered west. He talked his way onto the pitching decks of an Alaskan fishing boat—a job so rough that even the rugby-hardened Richards admitted it was one of the toughest things he’s ever done—in order to fund a six-month motorcycle ride through the depths of South America. He was always seeking, always finding, always looking for another way to fire up his combustion-engine adrenal glands one more time.
Richards’ latest challenge? Head coach of the women’s rugby team at Central Washington University. However, he still finds time to make it back to Omaha to visit his parents in between long-distance canoe racing and honing his coaching craft abroad.
“I get back to Omaha about two to three times a year,” Richards said. “It does hold a special place in my heart. I am grateful for the upbringing I had there and the lifelong friends who essentially became family. I think of the warm people.”
It turns out, even when you’re 16,000 feet up on an Ecuadorian volcano, you can still see exactly where you came from.
Visit cwu.edu for more information.
This article first appeared in the May 2020 issue of Omaha Magazine.