London Stadium, August 2017. The hallowed lanes paved with greatness at the 2012 Summer Olympics are once again being bestowed with glory, as the stadium hosts the World Athletics Championships.
As ever, the very last event is the men’s 4×400-metre relay final; as ever, the USA are red-hot favourites to add to their medal tally in the discipline. But while the Americans have unparalleled dominance in the relay, Trinidad and Tobago also has an uncanny pedigree, dating back to the 1950s and represented now by a quartet that does that lineage proud.
Two short years earlier, the T&T team secured gold at the Pan Am Games in Toronto, when their youngest member — already with a silver medal from the individual 400-metre event — turned on his trademark after-burners in the final stretch, and took T&T from also-rans to champions. For good measure, two weeks later he anchored the relay team to a silver medal at the 2015 World Athletics Championships in Beijing. Now that man — Machel Cedenio — and his three teammates, are seeking to go one step higher on the winners’ podium.
The USA leads comfortably from the very beginning, until T&T’s Jereem Richards and then Cedenio close the gap, to place Lalonde Gordon in a position to do the unthinkable and beat the Americans. As Gordon disappears under two of his countrymen in the wild abandonment of celebration, Cedenio’s face is the epitome of initial shock, requiring an answer to his probable question: did this really just happen? It soon wears off and he joins the celebrations, now blissfully aware that this is the latest addition to a long line of achievements in his brief twenty-one years.
Cedenio is purpose-built for his profession: he has the classic rangy make-up of the one-lap specialist, with a relaxed attitude reflected in an easy-looking stride which belies the incredible amount of work being converted into raw speed. You’d be hard-pressed to find a photo of him grimacing from the effort of catching and passing competitors. He displays none of the facial antics commonly equated with supreme focus among world-class athletes. You could say he is somewhere in the middle of the athlete attitude spectrum, but it’s more likely that Machel Cedenio is completely relaxed on the track simply because he knows it is exactly where he belongs. It is “home.”
Familiarity allows for calm, and Cedenio has been acquainted with victory on a rising scale since the age of fifteen, when — like so many Caribbean track and field stars — he burst through to prominence with gold-medal performances at the Carifta Games. The fuse was lit. “At that point, I thought, I have some talent, maybe I should stick with this sport,” Cedenio recalls. “When I first started, I used to run the 100 metres, but I used to come fourth or fifth. But the first national team I made was for the 400, so from there I realised it was my event.”
Natural progression saw him expand his regional tally at the Junior Central American and Caribbean Championships before stamping his authority globally with the big one: the individual 400-metre title at 2014’s World Junior Championships. By now, it was evident that he needed to further his potential in the unofficial athletic finishing school that is the US track and field circuit. “After secondary school,” he says, “my parents and coach [Lance Braumann] decided that we will dedicate everything to running.”
Moving to Orlando, he continued to blossom as part of Braumann’s training group, and set his sights on senior titles. Despite concerns about living away from his family, Cedenio made a seamless transition into the senior ranks. He was still only twenty years old when the Rio Olympics came along, so the emphasis — according to observers, at least — was on gaining experience. But Cedenio took to the competition with a zest that saw him into the 400-metre final, only to finish just out of the medals in fourth place as the winner broke the world record. With his scintillating form, he joined his relay companions in the continued search for precious metal. Then, disaster. T&T were disqualified for stepping outside their lane in their very first heat. The 2016 Olympic dream was over, representing the first real setback of Cedenio’s career.
The twin aspects of family support and deep patriotism remain entrenched in his psyche and, aligned to his work ethic, make the Point Fortin man even hungrier for success. When the Trinidad and Tobago Olympic Committee launched a campaign for ten Olympic gold medals by the year 2024 (#10Golds24), Cedenio was the first athlete to pledge his dedication to the cause. “I’m working every day to help achieve this goal for my country,” he said. Reinforcing that he’s acutely aware of what it takes to get to the top, he portrayed his viewpoint with the clichéd “You’re only as good as your last race,” before adding his own mantra: “I don’t believe in days off.”
Cedenio’s composure may have its roots in his relationship with his greatest supporters, his family. He speaks regularly about the need to get back to T&T to spend time with them. “I’m close to both my parents and my three sisters,” he says. “Any time something goes bad in track and field, I go to my mom or God, and it ends up all being good.”
That support was crucial when Cedenio experienced the negative side of celebrity in late 2018, as he was called in by the police for questioning over a road accident in Tobago, being cleared once the investigation was completed. He took umbrage at the media’s reporting of the incident, releasing a social media comment: “They were happy to report I walked into a police station with my lawyer for questioning etc, but they weren’t as eager to report I walked out uncharged with a clear name.” It marked the end of a troublesome year, with no medals at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and injury forcing him out of the CAC Games. It was time to rebound.
In his own words, “If you lose, it’s not a reason to give up, it’s a reason to go forward.” Which is exactly what Cedenio has done in 2019, with a slew of steady performances that culminated in a performance dubbed “the run of his life” at the World Relays event in Yokohoma, Japan, this past May. The USA once again had a commanding lead, with T&T in third place as Cedenio was handed the baton on the final leg. Amazingly, he closed the seemingly impossible gap to catch his American opponent on the line by the smallest of margins. Commentators were floored: “Cedenio with a finish for the ages!”
Now twenty-three years old and entering the peak years of an athlete, Cedenio faces a crucial stepping-stone — the 2019 IAAF World Championships in Doha — towards the one medal missing from his collection: Olympic.
The Pan Am Games in Peru this past August brought a setback. Cedenio stopped before the line in the individual 400 metres, feeling the onset of cramp. In the relay, he was neck and neck with his Colombian counterpart and about to turn on those trademark afterburners when he inexplicably faded to third place. The reserved Cedenio offered no explanation, but there are bigger targets on the immediate horizon, with Doha looming. There’s enough time for Cedenio to tweak things before lining up on his favourite hunting ground at the World Championships.
“Going up on the podium and hearing the national anthem, that’s when it really hit me,” Cedenio said after his two World titles. Prepare to be hit again, Machel.