Saturday, December 16, 2017

The year Njisane moved forward


Flashback: Njisane Phillip, left goes over Russia's Denis Dimitriev in the match-sprint quarter-finals at the 2012 London Olympics in August.

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There is a time for everything, a wise man once said.

Now is Njisane Phillip's time to rest. He has earned it.

For the past two years, the 21-year old has been putting his bicycle on tracks from Arima to London. The London meet in August was the biggest of them all, since it was the Olympic competition. He was worthy of a medal for just for getting there. Only three slots in London were available for countries in the COPACI region in which Trinidad and Tobago falls and Phillip on his own earned that spot through a series of steady last-eight performances in the governing body UCI's World Cup series. That Phillip eventually got as far as fourth place in the match sprint at the Olympics itself, was testimony to riding that was beyond his norm.

So, of those local athletes who made the public take notice with their performances in 2012, Phillips' were among the most encouraging. You see, it was no little thing that the match sprinter accomplished for his sport.

Despite the rich medal-winning tradition of cycling in T&T, no rider from these islands has ever won precious metal at the Olympics. So when Phillip went up against Russian Denis Dimitriev at the velodrome in London and beat him in two straight rides to reach the semi-finals, he could have done no worse than match Gene "Geronimo" Samuel for the best-ever performance by a local cyclist at the Games--fourth place. And none had got has high as fourth in the sprint.

For all the Pan American and Commonwealth Games medals won by Roger Gibbon and the late Leslie King, Olympic honours had escaped these champions. And not since Samuel in Atlanta, 1996, had T&T even been represented at the Games in cycling. Phillip had taken T&T back to the Olympics and made a statement.

His flirtation with bronze in London was a huge fillip for the sport in an era when just getting to the Olympics is complicated for riders in this region.

Needless to say, Phillip described 2012 as, "a magnificent year for me."

"I have accomplished a lot in 2012; just looking forward to the future really. Just qualifying for the Olympic Games, barely making it in. The whole build-up," he told me.

I thought about that build-up. And for true, the work he did in getting to London for a young man just about three years out of Juniors was as impressive as what he did at the Olympics.

Why? Because to earn a spot at the Games, Phillip had to overcome not just one match sprinter per country as was the case in London, but more than one per country at the World Cups. Some of the better riders in Europe and the wider world therefore were not able to taste Olympic competition. But Phillips' steady efforts at the World Cup meets he attended earned him enough points to get there. It was a solo effort.

The Trinidad and Tobago Cycling Federation had initially been hoping for a team sprint trio to earn passage to the Games, however, that did not happen. So Phillip went for "gold" on his own. It was a sometimes trying journey because of injury early in the year, and later because funds did not always come through speedily. But it says something about his strength of character and self belief that he made his Olympic dream come through, not in 2016, in Rio but four years earlier.

"Definitely a victory," he said of qualification for London. "Just trying to make my family and parents proud."

Those series of races were really the culmination of the head of steam he built up last year.

"My transformation was really in 2011; that is what I look to," he said.

Since 2010 when he burst into the senior ranks with a silver medal in the match sprint at the Pan Am Championships in Mexico, Phillip has been building momentum steadily; just as he does when chasing opponents in the match sprint.

In May 2011, he followed up his Pan Am silver with bronze in the sprints at the same Championships. In September, back home at the Arima Velodrome for the national championships, Phillip set a new record on the concrete track in the qualifying Flying 200 metres with a time of 10.72 seconds. Then in October at the Pan American Games, also in Mexico, Njisane did over the Games record with a sizzling 9.77 clocking.

"Before, I was just training not really wanting it. In 2011 I started really started wanting it (as the Olympics drew closer). I changed how dedicated I was. That made a big difference. I see that I have the ability to do it. It's just to keep working hard and learning," he said.

And before getting to London, Phillip warmed up by further improving on his PR in the Flying 200 by putting down a 9.77.5 ride in Colorado at US Sprint Grand Prix.

It says something about the ability of the Siparia native that the United States courted him for their programme, even extending their training facilities to the T&T rider. The USA coach Jamie Staff is also now Phillip's coach.

The wider world got an appreciation of Phillip's talent in London, where he proved a crowd favourite. For him, though, there was no one special moment.

"My favourite ride would definitely be...I don't know, I have so many... All the rides at the Olympic Games...It was just a big show and I had to go out and perform."

I remember back in August sounding out "Geronimo" Samuel about Phillip's rides in London.

"I was more impressed with his tactics and his speed," he said then. "His best sprint for me was the first ride-off with (Shane) Perkins for the bronze medal. It was beautiful. The execution of the ride, the fast thinking. I enjoyed that one."

And Samuel reckoned that, "as Njisane improves and gets faster in the sprints he will automatically get faster in the keirin."

However, Phillip probably does not need reminding that as promising as his work in London was, he has not yet won Olympic gold, silver or bronze.

He has already come very far in a short space of time though Therefore, 2013 will, so to speak, be the year he catches his breath.

"I've been away for two, three years chasing down the Olympics," he explained. And he is not yet tired of spending time with his family.

Phillip will not see serious competition again until November in the World Cup series. But he will still be actively involved with the sport at home. As a race promoter!

Come April next year, fans could well be going to the "Njisane three-day Cycling Festival," carded for Arima Velodrome, Skinner Park and Palo Seco.

"It was always a big dream of mine to bring pro cycling to Trinidad and integrate female cyclists. It will be great for me to have this annually and for all the athletes to come to Trinidad. It's just an event to showcase our country."

It is a noble, ambitious idea, being supported by the Ministry of Sport and the Sport Company.

But the venture is another indication of a man of action, not standing still.

It was indeed his year for moving forward.