Good As Gold

Good As Gold (3)

Iconic St Lucian high jumper Levern Spencer is yet to achieve her dream of standing on the Olympic medal podium, but very few could dispute the great heights she has already achieved for the tiny island and the wider Caribbean as a whole.

It would have been easy to sit back and accept that odds are stacked against her.  After all, she hails from an island with a population of less than 200,000 and much fewer resources to spare for sport than much bigger nations. 

She did not begin competing in the sport until 14, much later than many of her peers, and at 5’ 9’ in a field where competitors consistently range well over 6ft she is routinely one of the smallest.  But, throughout her life and career, Spencer has habitually slain her fair share of Goliaths.

What she may lack in height, is more than made up for in a big heart filled with determination that has driven her journey of unprecedented achievement so far and the burning desire to keep flying higher.

In total, Spencer, who began representing St Lucia as a junior some 22-years ago, has claimed 21 gold medals for her country so far.  Most famously, she won gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia, a first for both herself and her country.  It was a proud moment.

“St Lucia had never won a gold medal at this event, and it was my fifth Commonwealth Games, and winning a gold, having won two bronze medals in 2014 and 2010, it was a big deal for us,” Spencer recalled.

 Levern Spencer Wins High Jump Title At Hvezdy v Nehvizdech | World-Track  and Field Website

 

“Being the one to create history is something I will always remember…whenever I stand on the podium hearing my country’s national anthem, seeing the flag being flown, it’s always very special and emotional.  I always had in the back of the mind that it is because of my efforts, because of something I did,” she added.

As with a great many things, barring a twist of fate, the world might never have heard of Spencer.  Things could have turned out much differently for herself and the country.  The athlete did not consider doing the jumps as a very young athlete and only gave it some consideration after it was suggested by a teacher.

“One of my teachers at the time just advised that I do the high jump for my house (intra-school team) and I won the event not knowing anything about technique or the high jump.  So, I’m so thankful that I did not say no and gave it a try,” Spencer said.

“I’m just happy that, that teacher who was my first coach as well, Mr. Gregory Lewin, introduced me to the sport.  Sometimes it’s good to listen and say yes, you’ll give it a try.  Maybe if I had said no, I probably would not have been the high jumper I am today.”

The rest as they say is history, in addition to winning numerous medals and awards, Spencer went on break the county’s national records on several occasions.  In fact, she set the first when she was just a 14-year-old, not too long after starting the event.  She set the current mark of 1.98m in 2010.

At 37, the jumper is heading into the twilight of her career and the time for Olympic glory has all but run out.  Heading into her fourth Olympic Games, however, hope burns eternal that she may be able to create history for St Lucia, yet again, but this time on the grandest of stages.  Spencer knows it will take something extraordinary.

“In order to win Olympic gold, I would definitely need something special on that day.  It might take around a clearance of 2m, which I haven’t done but it’s possible, anything is possible.  I would need something special on that day,” she said.

“Two high jumpers that inspire me are Ruth Beitia and Chaunte Lowe, Ruth despite her age and not having an Olympic medal after three attempts, just like me, she kept going until she won her gold medal and 37 and Chaunte because like me she is one of the smallest in the field and always manages to be competitive despite having to overcome so many challenges.”

In truth, however, even if the athlete were to leave the Games empty-handed, perhaps, for the final time, she had more importantly already served as inspiration for future generations and when it comes to putting her country on the map, flew well clear of that bar, with plenty to spare, a long time ago.

“Despite the many medals that I have won, what I regard as my biggest success in my athletic career is that coming from a tiny nation of only 180,000 people I was able to work hard and be competitive against the best in the world.  Sometimes on many occasions defeating them.  I am happy I have served as an inspiration for up-and-coming St Lucian athletes and I know that I gave my all and my best at whatever I did and persevered to the end.”

The Olympic Games serve as the world’s biggest showcase of sporting talent.

For the Caribbean region, when we hear Olympics, the sport we mainly think about is track & field.

With the region’s rich and storied history of success in the sport, gold, silver and bronze medals are often used to measure the success of respective athletes.  It is, however, far from the only stand.

For some countries, having a representative on the biggest global track & field stage in the world is worth just as much or more than any individual medal.

Antigua & Barbuda is one of those countries and the athlete who has represented them the best on the big stage is sprinter Daniel Bailey.

Bailey, the 100m sprint specialist, has represented his nation in four Olympic Games and five World Championships.

His best result came at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, Germany.

The headliners were Olympic champion and world record holder Usain Bolt and defending double sprint champion from the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, Tyson Gay.

In the fastest race in history, Bolt ran 9.58 to destroy the world record, Gay ran an unbelievable 9.71 to finish second and Asafa Powell finished third in 9.84.

Bailey just narrowly missed out on a historic medal for Antigua & Barbuda, finishing fourth in that race with a time of 9.93.  It wasn’t his first major championship appearance, but it was also when Bailey became a household name in men’s sprinting.

However, Bailey’s first time representing Antigua and Barbuda on the biggest stage of global athletics came five years earlier in 2004.

As a 17-year-old, he carried the flag for his country during the opening ceremony of the Athens Olympics. It is a memory he will carry with him forever.

“I was elated. I was really, really excited to be holding the flag for my country Antigua & Barbuda. A couple of days before, we had a meeting to decide who would do it and when they shouted my name and said ‘Daniel Bailey, you’re going to hold the flag’, it was a special feeling because I know how much it meant for an upcoming athlete to be holding the flag for his nation,” Bailey said.

To put that into perspective, he carried the flag at those Olympics just one month after competing at the World Junior Championships in Grosseto, Italy where he finished 4th in the 100 metres in a time of 10.39.

At those Athens Olympics, Bailey finished 6th in his 100 metres heat in 10.51.

Four years later, at the Beijing Olympics, Bailey, then 21, was again the flag bearer.

During the Games, he advanced to the quarter-finals after finishing second to Bolt in 10.24 in the preliminary round.

Bailey then ran 10.23 to finish 4th but failed to advance from his quarterfinal, a race which saw him lined up against Jamaica’s former world record holder Asafa Powell and American Walter Dix, who eventually won the bronze.

A year after those Olympics would see Bailey enter the prime of his sprinting career.

He would finish 4th at the 2009 World Championships and then fifth at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu.

On July 17, 2009, in Paris, Bailey ran a personal best and an Antiguan national record of 9.91.

Bailey then carried his nation’s flag at the third straight Olympics in London 2012 where he competed in the 100 metres.

Running in heat 4, against Bolt once again, Bailey would run a time of 10.12 to finish 2nd   and advance to the semi-finals.

Bailey then lined up against Bolt, American Ryan Bailey and  Richard Thompson, the silver medallist from the 2008 games in his semi-final.

He finished 6th in that race in 10.16 and failed to reach the Olympic final once again.

Bailey admits that he had entered into those Olympics with high hopes but suffered some setbacks along the way.

“I had it in my mind to make my first Olympic final. I was really working hard that year and then I got an injury that set me back a little bit. The first week I got to London I caught a bad flu, and it took a toll on my body. I got eliminated in the semi-finals, but I think my overall performance was good based on what was happening.” 

Fast forward four years to the 2016 Rio Olympics and Bailey became one of the few athletes in history to ever be their country’s flag bearer at four straight Olympic Games opening ceremonies.

That year, he competed in Heat 2 of the men’s 100 metres and finished 2nd in 10.20 behind eventual silver medallist Justin Gatlin and advanced to the semi-finals.

He was then slated to appear in semi-final 3 but did not show up for the start due to injury.

Bailey may not have had the medal haul of many Caribbean greats but he has competed at the highest level of the sport for more than a decade and is a role model for sprinters hailing from smaller Caribbean islands like his native Antigua & Barbuda.

“You have to love it and enjoy it,” were Bailey’s words of wisdom for a new generation of up-and-coming athletes.

“My word to the up-and-coming athletes is to go for your goals. Whatever you believe in, nobody can stop that. Always work hard and smart and remember that dedication is the key to success at all times.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

One could easily have forgiven then 22-year-old Guyanese boxer Michael Parris if he had been left frozen by the large crowds, cold climate, and politically charged atmosphere of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games.

Sixty-six countries, including the Caribbean islands of Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Cayman Islands, and Haiti had boycotted the games entirely because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.  Security at the athletes' village was robust, with armed soldiers and barbed wire unfamiliar sights for the quadrennial spectacle of global goodwill.

At the time, Parris, now looking back, admits that all of that mattered very little.  After all, he was there for one thing and that was to win gold for Guyana, a country which despite its reputation for being rich in earthly minerals, had yet to mine a spec of precious metal on the Olympics stage. 

With that singular focus in mind, Parris recalls spending the majority of his time at the Games training in his hotel room, with the air conditioning stuck at its lowest setting, to help with acclimatisation.  Even so, once the moment arrived, once he stepped out onto the global stage, the gravity of the moment did not entirely escape him.

“I was nervous.  Nobody was calling for Guyana.  I lost at least a bucket of sweat from my face and arms.  The crowd was just so big, and you see maybe one little Guyana flag.  It doesn’t matter where you go in the world, someone from Guyana will always be there.  I saw a little flag somewhere in the crowd,” Parris recalled of stepping into the middle of the ring.

“But, when I was fighting, I never focused on the crowd, not even the coach.  When I was in the ring I only focused on the other fighter, his movement, my movement, to see when I had hurt him,” he added.

Parris began the bouts with a win over Nigeria’s Nureni Gbadamosi, in the round of 32, followed by another win over Syria’s Fayez Zaghloui in the round of 16.  Another solid performance saw the referee stop the contest between himself and Mexico’s Daniel Zaragoza, in the quarterfinals, before he faced Cuba’s Juan Hernández in the semi-finals.

 Unfortunately for Parris, the competition ended there, with the Cuban going on to outpoint him before defeating Venezuela’s Bernardo Piñango in the final to claim the gold medal.

Even if the mission wasn’t fully accomplished, the job had been well done.  Parris’ performances assured him of a bronze medal.  The long journey, which began in sunny Georgetown, Guyana had culminated with a spot on the podium nearly 5,000 miles away, in the chilly Russian city.  Forty years have passed since the monumental occasion, but for Parris, looking back, winning the country’s first and only Olympic medal to date still fills him with a deep sense of pride.

“I didn’t know if I was standing or sitting, or what, when the flag went up in the air.  The excitement, I don’t even remember if I was standing.  To see the flag raised, of 100s of other countries the Guyanese flag was up there.  It was just so good.  Some of our other athletes had flags waving as well, I was checking up on them and they thought they should have won medals as well and such,” Parris recalled.

“It was really exciting everything about it.  Everything, the crowd, the first time the Guyana flag was raised at a Games.  Many athletes went to the games before me.  The first time I went, thankfully, I qualified and was able to bring back the bronze,” he added.

Parris’ achievement is yet to be equalled.  Even the late Andrew ‘Six heads’ Lewis, who went to be WBA World Welterweight Champion, did not match his achievement at the Olympic level.  Lewis failed to advance past the first round at the 1990 Olympics after losing to Germany’s Andreas Otto.

Parris is convinced that the country’s lack of outright success, since then, at the Olympic level, is not due to a lack of talent but more a case of not being enough done to fully harness the potential of young Guyanese athletes.

“We need to find a way to support our athletes.  We need to look closely at these athletes, support them and you’ll get the best out of them.  Support them and expose them, they need financial programs and stuff like that.  Any sports you can think of Guyanese are good at it, whether it be running, swimming, cricket they just need the backing.”

He admits, however, that he has recently been encouraged by the approach taken by a newly elected government, which came into power last year, and the appointment of sports minister Charles Ramson Jr.

“I have been encouraged that we have a young sport’s minister, with this new government.  He looks like he is ready to push things ahead, so we may get a few more Guyanese medalling at the Olympic Games soon,” Parris said.

If there is one regret, Parris, now 63, says is that he has not been able to work with some of the country’s youth boxers, as he was never given the opportunity.  Still, he does his part to attempt to inspire the next generation.

“It’s been a great feeling, but the only thing I wish is when I came back with the medal, I would have loved to give something back to the youth.  I never got the chance because no one called upon me to say come and help us with the coaching program or whatever.  When they have summer camps now though, sometimes I drive around with the medal to show them so they can see it and feel it.  I want to inspire them. I want them to know they can do it as well.”

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