Thursday, February 22, 2018

Stand in awe

Part 1: Champs, Jamaica’s athletics master class

javon francis for web

RECORD-BREAKER: Javon Francis, en route to victory in the Boys' and Girls’ Athletics Championship Class 1 Boys’ 400 metres final, at the National Stadium in Kingston, Jamaica, last Saturday. The Calabar High student won in 45.00 seconds—a new meet record. Photo: JEAN-PIERRE DURAND FOR THE IAAF

Kwame Laurence

champs crowd for web

MASSIVE CROWD: A section of last Saturday’s 35,000-plus Champs crowd. Photo: JEAN-PIERRE DURAND FOR THE IAAF

Kwame Laurence


Kwame Laurence

 “I’ve never seen so many outstanding performances in one meet, other than Olympic Games or World Championships. I’m in awe!”

These were the words of Debbie Ferguson-McKenzie during a television interview on the final day of the 2014 Boys’ and Girls’ Athletics Championships at the National Stadium, in Kingston, Jamaica.

The Bahamian sprinter has performed on the biggest stages, earning Olympic relay gold as well as individual and relay titles at Worlds. Yet, her mind was blown by a high school meet.

Well, Ferguson-McKenzie wasn’t the only one who had a jaw-dropping experience last weekend.

Before flying to Jamaica last month, I had received ample warning about the magnitude of the event popularly known as Champs. But seeing is believing, and what I saw last Saturday was unbelievable—an electric atmosphere created by screaming, vuvuzela-blowing fans.

And with a large portion of the 35,000-plus spectators wearing school colours and sitting in specific sections of the stadium, there was a visual spectacle as well.

If passion could be bottled and sold, I would have shipped a few cases back to Trinidad and Tobago, with one case reserved for our own Secondary Schools Championships. Forgive me for dreaming.

Jamaica’s two-time Olympic 100 metres gold medallist and multiple IAAF world champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce got her first taste of big-meet pressure while still a student at Wolmer’s Girls School.

“I remember walking through the tunnel for the first time in a Champs setting. I came out and saw the crowd and I was ‘oh my God, this is Champs.’ I remember being so little. I made the final of the 100 metres and I was super excited. I came seventh but I was proud.”

The Champs experience has contributed significantly to Fraser-Pryce’s success at the Olympics, the biggest sporting stage of all.

“I’ve already seen this kind of crowd before. I’ve already experienced the adrenalin rush, the butterflies, the everything.”

The Champs meet started last week Tuesday, and climaxed on Saturday night with an impressive fireworks display that celebrated Jamaican athletic excellence. The most fervent participants were the champions—the girls of Edwin Allen High and the boys of Calabar High.

The Champs experience is not limited to the National Stadium. The Calabar troops gathered at their Mayfair Hotel base at the end of day one. Not satisfied with their showing, the defending champions went into battle mode.

Without apology, a senior member tells his teammates: “Die out there. We will bury you.”

That’s intense! But Champs is serious business, and such passion is par for the course.

One athlete could not contain his emotions, shedding tears over his disappointing performance.

“Wipe yuh eye, yuh ah lion,” are the words of consolation offered to the distraught young man.

Tough love, yes. But their methods are tried and tested. The Calabar Lions have won 24 boys’ titles in the 104-year history of Champs.

A 200m bronze medallist at the 2012 Olympics and a silver medallist in the same event at last year’s World Championships, Warren Weir is among the standout athletes who have come through the Calabar system.

Weir is now 24, and long out of school. But once a Lion, always a Lion.

“Everything for the Green and Black at this time of the season,” the former Calabar captain declares. “They look up to me as somebody they saw coming through the same ranks. It’s a wonderful feeling I can go back there and play a major role in their life and inspire them and give them a powerful talk.”

And that’s exactly what Weir did on the Tuesday night, the Jamaica sprint star urging his fellow-Lions to have a “never-say-die” attitude.

Weir was back on duty on Friday, comforting fellow-Lion Michael O’Hara after the promising sprinter had been disqualified for a false start in his Class 1 Boys’ 100m semi-final heat.

The final of that event produced one of the performances of Champs. Eighteen-year-old Anguillan Zharnel Hughes struck gold for Kingston College in a sizzling 10.12 seconds, breaking a seven-year-old Yohan Blake record.

But of the 21 records that fell at Champs 2014, the one that will be indelibly etched in my memory is Javon Francis’ 45 seconds flat in the Class 1 Boys’ 400m final.

With no one to push him, the 19-year-old Calabar Lion took on the clock, and won, erasing Usain Bolt’s 45.35 standard from the books.

Like Ferguson-McKenzie, I stand in awe.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Trinidad Express writer Kwame Laurence is among a select group of sports journalists chosen to be part of the latest IAAF Day in the Life series, a project featuring some of the Caribbean’s best athletes as well as other major players in the sport of track and field. Next Friday, we feature Anguillan sprint sensation Zharnel Hughes