There’s something to be said for perseverance. Elders know what they’re speaking about when they impart their gems of wisdom to unsuspecting young folk, and the adage of doggedness holds particular value, particularly in the sporting arena. Levern Spencer epitomises this attribute in spades, along with the other maxim of fine wine only getting better — or, in her occupation, higher — with age.
The lanky high jumper is the most decorated athlete in St Lucia’s history: that’s across gender as well as time. If that suggests she’s been at the international forefront for many years, then that’s correct — but it’s within the last decade that Spencer has combined talent, skill, belief, and experience to make giant leaps forward at major global athletics competitions. And that’s meant medals by the bucket-load for St Lucia.
Spencer’s ability was apparent from her early ventures into athletics at secondary school, but her career has still been a pleasant surprise. “I had no idea sports would take me this far,” she says. “I was just running around, jumping, having fun, but then I broke the St Lucian national record when I was only fourteen. Just breaking it meant that’s something — you can take this up as a career.”
The Carifta Games, the annual regional competition that consistently spawns future world-beaters, soon followed. Spencer did not exactly waltz in to take the top step of the podium — rather, it took her three years to finally earn Carifta gold, in 2001. Then something clicked within. The realisation that she could win at that level pushed her to claim a bronze medal at the World Youth Championships in Hungary that same year. It was the further confirmation required to set her on a path to the top. Spencer completed 2001 with gold in the Central American and Caribbean (CAC) Championships. St Lucia took notice, and named her Sportswoman of the Year. No one could have predicted then that she would take that title a further fourteen times (and still counting).
For Spencer, representing her nation is a source of both pride and motivation. Her exploits made her an unofficial envoy for years, before St Lucia made it official in 2019, bestowing the title of Goodwill Ambassador. “As I travelled around the world, the question ‘Where is St Lucia?’ is one I’ve had to answer many times,” Spencer says. “And that question is normally asked after I have defeated opponents from so-called big countries. I have always seen my sport as one way of promoting my country.”
The support of her immediate family — together with her strong faith and her relationship with numerous sponsors — spurs her forward year upon year, helping to explain Spencer’s age-progression equation. However, it’s what she deems her extended family — her nation — that is her biggest motivation, a fact that Spencer revisits consistently. “It is always comforting to know that when you have given of your best to make your country known, your efforts are recognised and appreciated by the people who matter. And that is all of St Lucia,” she says.
Spencer looks to her countrymen even when it’s not all medals and titles. “Even when I have been criticised for not meeting expectations, I looked at it as they wanted me to be the best — and so I used that criticism as a stepping stone in my quest to get to the top.”
Spencer achieved middling results in the 2002 Commonwealth Games and 2003 Pan Am Games — her first major competitions — a trend that continued at her first senior World Championships in 2005. But by the time the Commonwealth Games came around again, she was a true contender. By then she was in the US college system, gaining the all-important finishing touches of technical support at the University of Georgia, where she studied health promotion and behaviours. The university has a proud history of producing Olympians in swimming and athletics, and Spencer was determined to be added to that list. “Georgia has really good academics, but also really good coaches,” she explains. “My teammates were really supportive. Everybody cheers, even in practice, making it like a competition every time. With the balance of academics, it was a really good place for me.”
Graduation was not only literal: on the field she stepped up to a bronze in her second Pan Am Games, and achieved the qualifying mark to attend her first Olympics in Beijing, as part of St Lucia’s three-person team. The standard attained, she began her remarkable decade of achievement and elevation: bronze at the 2010 and 2014 Commonwealths, attending her second Olympics in 2012, CAC Games gold in 2014 — then the first really big one, gold at the 2015 Pan Am Games. Her nation welcomed home their heroine with typical Caribbean revelry, celebrating their first gold medal.
Spencer made the 2016 Olympic final, eventually leaping to sixth place, surpassing all expectations. Then she obliterated the field at the 2018 Commonwealths, to banish past disappointments: once again, St Lucia celebrated an unprecedented gold. She continued their party with a second Pan Am gold in 2019.
St Lucia’s iconic volcanic spires, Petit Piton and Grand Piton, symbolise the ups and downs that led to Spencer’s eventual triumphs: a smaller peak of early success, followed by a trajectory towards the larger peak that truly dominates all as it reaches for the sky. So it’s apt that Spencer enjoys spending time around her island’s iconic landmarks. “I love to climb the Pitons, and walk around the beautiful scenery in St Lucia,” she says. “This twenty-year journey has not been smooth sailing. I’ve had mountains to climb and rivers to cross, but with the help of God, support of my management team, and unfailing love of my St Lucian people, I have pressed towards the mark.”
The winner of the high jump at the Rio Olympics was thirty-seven years old. Levern Spencer turns thirty-seven this year. The chance of St Lucia earning its first Olympic medal has never been this good, and when the Tokyo Olympics finally happen, Spencer aims to deliver. “There are still goals to be achieved and dreams to be realised.” There’s that perseverance once again . . .
Born 23 June, 1984
Height: 5 feet 9 inches
Personal best: 1.98 metres (Athens, Georgia; 8 May, 2010)