Olympic dreams | Snapshot

The Caribbean’s established athletes will bear the task of bringing joy to the region — and the next generation have also been waiting for a year to make their own statement. Sheldon Waithe profiles four talented, eager, first-time Olympians seeking to be “Faster, Higher, Stronger” on the biggest stage of all

  • Tajay Gayle. Photo by Taku Wu/Alamy Stock Photo
  • Ishona Charles. Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images Europe
  • Teniel Campbell. Photo by Andrea Kareth/Getty Images Europe
  • Eldric Sella Rodriguez. UNHCR/Jeff Mayers

The postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics due to COVID-19 was a major disappointment to athletes and sports fans alike. When the rescheduled Games open this July, it will be a significant statement for a world ravaged by the pandemic, seeking a sense of normality and a reason to celebrate humankind.

Tajay Gayle

Jamaica • Born 2 August, 1996
Long jump
Personal best: 8.69 metres

It’s not often that an athlete making his Olympic debut is listed as a favourite for a gold medal. But when that athlete is the reigning World Champion, then it’s understood that he is a performer for the big occasions. 

Tajay Gayle is the latest product from the seemingly endless conveyer belt of Jamaican track and field stars unleashed upon the world. After a magical 2019, a year that also saw him secure Pan Am Games silver before his ascendency to World Champion, the twenty-four-year-old is eager to relegate the Olympic postponement to the annals of yesteryear, and channel all the frustration of waiting to compete as thrust for his event, the long jump.

A born competitor and dedicated sportsman, Gayle says he coped well as his country went into lockdown, “The only problem for me was not competing, because everything seemed the same to me. I never wanted to go out anyway — it’s just training, home, TV, games, that’s all. Just the competition alone I missed.”

The man who got into athletics simply to beat his cousin in the street races of August Town, Kingston, was initially focused — like so many youngsters — on the 100 metres. But his high school coach saw the potential for jumping, and coerced him to try the high jump. Minor success at the national level followed, but a curious Gayle fulfilled his curiosity about other events by immersing himself in the multi-discipline decathlon. It was his long jump performance that stood out, and within a year he had crossed into the jumper’s global standard of regularly leaping over eight metres.

Combining his natural speed with a penchant for putting in the hard yards created the steep trajectory that would take him to the top step at the Doha World Championships in 2019. “I developed a real love for training. My coach had to stay on my case to keep me on track, but once I started enjoying it, I committed.”

Being physically ready for an Olympics is but one part of the ambitious athlete’s repertoire, and Gayle is about to run down the ramp within the greatest cauldron of pressure for a sportsman. However, there should be little doubt about his ability to cope mentally, as evidenced by the lessons learned two years ago. “In Doha, my goal was to get a medal, but I never thought it would be gold. I made a big mistake. I put the event on a pedestal, started to overthink it. I saw the clock counting down and rushed it, jumping 7.81 on my opening attempt. OKno big deal. I looked down the runway, imagining what I was about do. My mind was blank, the way it should be. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven — I counted my steps. When I landed this time, I knew it was a good jump. The crowd’s reaction told me. It was still only the fourth round, but it started to dawn on me — I was about to become the world champion.”

Ishona Charles

Grenada • Born 15 May, 1986
Personal best: 30.33 metres

An Olympic debut is a daunting prospect, but being the first athlete ever to represent your nation at the Paralympic Games is an altogether different matter. Ishona Charles does not seem fazed — the Tokyo Paralympics are part and parcel of her stride through a life that is guided by her perspective of cherishing health, happiness, and the desire to compete against the best in the world. For Charles, it is all embedded in the concept of making a difference that will pave the way for other Paralympians from her talented island of Grenada.

She expresses some frustration at the effect that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on her training, but her determination to represent in Japan with aplomb saw her improvise, using the rural environment as well as modern technology to create a makeshift gym. Large stones from a nearby river together with pieces of iron became the weights that are a crucial preparation element for her event, the javelin. Jones recorded videos of her daily regime and sent them to her coach. Few training days were lost, even as Grenada endured twenty-four-hour lockdowns. Problem solved. After all, the Games were postponed, not cancelled.

It is symbolic of a determination born out of tragedy. A dedicated track and field athlete from the age of nine, Charles was attacked by a neighbour when she was nineteen, and lost her lower left arm. She credits her sports background with helping her escape a worse fate. “My ability to run saved my life. It’s a constant reminder of what I have. I have life, and I still do the things I used to do before.” 

Those things include throwing a javelin extremely far. After the attack, encouraged by family, coach, and friends, Charles began to train once more, though it was more for love of the sport rather than seeking to compete, as there was no parasport in Grenada at the time.

The transition for Charles was matched by changes in the governance of sport in her country. Aided by world body the International Paralympic Committee, the education programme I’mPOSSIBLE was introduced, followed by the formation of the Grenadian Paralympic Committee. Now, there were means for Charles to pursue her dreams, and fittingly she became Grenada’s first registered Paralympic athlete. She wasted no time in grabbing the opportunity, duly winning her first-ever competition, the javelin at the 2019 Arizona Annual Desert Challenge.

Gaining media attention back at home due to her performance, Charles immediately took up the mantle of a spokesperson. “I will be able to change the perspective of other people when they look at people with physical disabilities. Others are probably not as bold as I am, to put myself out there. Because of the way people look at [people with disabilities] and treat them. I use my disability as my motivation.”

That motivation is crystal-clear: “My biggest dream is to win Paralympic gold for my country.”

Teniel Campbell

Trinidad and Tobago • Born 23 September, 1997
Road cycling

Many world-beating athletes from the Caribbean have one thing in common: they all compete in explosive events. Fast-twitch fibres create enviable speed, height, and distance, as the region’s finest defy the odds and bring home precious metal. Not so for Teniel Campbell. The south Trinidad native has opted for the ultra-endurance of road cycling, and with it the monk-like existence required to succeed at the very highest level of the sport.

It’s a position she has duly attained, as the sole woman of colour at the elite level of the sport in its European hotbed. From her teenage years, her burning desire was matched by her singular focus on the bigger picture.

Making the national team, being offered a place on a development squad in Switzerland, and earning a spot on a globe-trotting Italian squad, were all stepping stones to get the twenty-three-year-old cyclist to her current position in Team Bike Exchange. The forward-thinking elite Australian squad — the first to offer equal pay for women and men — has been a perfect fit for Campbell, and offers the best preparation for her Olympic debut on a challenging Tokyo course certain to be amplified by heat and humidity, as well as a hungry peloton of fellow competitors. Three medals for seventy competitors in a single-day event are difficult odds, but Teniel has a history of defying the odds. Witness her CAC Games gold, and two silver medals from the 2019 Pan Am Games.

Her ebullient personality has been a boon for her team, her sport, and her country. Over the past year, the media-savvy Campbell caught the attention of global sports fans with her candid video blogs about her attempts to cope with being in lockdown, on her own, in a small apartment in pandemic-ravaged Italy. Her words and tears offered perspective. “It will all be worth it in the end. It is a new ‘way of life,’ and nothing worthwhile comes easy. This is the life you dreamed and worked your tail off for, remember?” Her Trini accent and colloquialisms offered insight into her nation’s culture. Her frankness continues to gain her followers across the social media spectrum. 

Campbell eschewed the burning desire to return to T&T — having not been home for over a year — and got on with the job of qualifying for the Olympics. The job is only partially completed — her legion of fans now await her debut, knowing that the hard miles she has put in on European roads throughout the first part of this year could come to fruition in July 2021. 

She is acutely aware that her role extends beyond the bike and beyond the domain of women. “I chose the discipline that you’ll hardly ever see in Trinidad and Tobago newspapers — a tall, lanky, successful endurance cyclist making waves on the international circuit, smashing down the doors and paving a path for the upcoming generation.” 

“I want to achieve the unthinkable” is one of her mantras. Teniel Campbell has already begun that process. 

Eldric Sella Rodriguez

IOC Refugee Olympic Team • Born 24 January, 1997

In an Olympic Games that represents hope to a world ravaged by COVID-19, and that rekindles the idea of triumph over adversity, Eldric Sella’s participation is a true example of succeeding against the odds to fulfil a dream.

When Sella marches out at the Opening Ceremony on 23 July, he will be part of the second-ever refugee team commissioned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), with the proviso that “The athletes represent not only themselves, not only the IOC, but also all refugees in the world.”

It’s a remarkable turnaround for Venezuela-born Sella, who fled to nearby Trinidad and Tobago in 2018 when his country’s humanitarian crisis and its accompanying violence became too big a threat. It seemed to be an end to his Olympic dream, which began at age ten. When Sella first stepped into the boxing ring to learn to defend himself, he found his competitive fire ignited, with the resulting burning desire to join the ranks of the few who can be called Olympians.

Sella took his passion, added discipline, and made sacrifices — he decided to forego a university education to dedicate himself to boxing — a combination that secured him a place on the Venezuelan national team. A champion by the age of fifteen, by eighteen he was on a national team that could no longer continue, due to nationwide turmoil.

But the first instinct of a good boxer is to always get back up after a knockdown. Arriving in Trinidad, like many of his countrymen in exile, Sella took on any and every work opportunity, from painting houses to mixing cement, while reviving his dream. Boxing was always on his mind, but could he make a return to the ring in his new environment?

The altruistic nature of sport revealed itself when the Trinidad and Tobago Boxing Association extended an invitation to Sella to compete in one of their tournaments. Despite not being in peak condition, as well as being ill, he won his bout. The fire was reignited.

Sella then learned about the official refugee team that took part in the 2016 Rio Olympics, and applied online for the IOC scholarship that he hoped would change his life. In December 2020, he was accepted, declaring “I feel alive again!”

Sella could now train full-time, and the arrival in Trinidad of his father, who is also his coach, completed the support system that includes his girlfriend, who acts as his manager and nutritionist. The trio earned immediate results, with the middleweight winning a silver medal in the T&T Boxing Association Championship. Then came the news that he received just fifty days before the start of the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics: Eldric Sella will indeed be an Olympian.

“Life is crazy!” he says. “It’s hard to understand, but you have to trust her fully because when you least expect it, she will act in ways you never thought possible and give you what you always dreamed of. Thank you, Life!” 

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