Ahead of the 2018 Youth Olympics, Joe Shooman talks to some of the young Caribbean sport stars preparing to light up the world stage
The finest and fittest Caribbean youngsters will be living every athlete’s dream this October as they compete in the Youth Olympics. A host of talented stars-in-the-making, aged between 14 and 18, will be heading to Buenos Aires, Argentina, for the third Summer Games. Qualifying events took place in spring and summer 2018, and now an inspiring troupe has been chosen to represent the Caribbean region.
The Youth Olympics were launched partly in response to concerns about childhood obesity and falling participation in youth sports. The first Summer Youth Olympic Games (YOG) was held in Singapore in 2010, and the flame passed to Nanjing, China in 2014. The 2020 event will be held in Lausanne, Switzerland in 2020.
It was hoped that YOG would help develop athletes for the adult Olympics, and several competitors from the YOG have achieved success in the adult games. South African swimmer Chad le Clos, Cuban boxer Robeisy Ramírez and UK taekwondo athlete Jade Jones are YOG winners who topped the podiums at London 2012 and Rio 2016. However, though experiencing the Youth Olympics can certainly stand athletes in good stead from a sporting perspective, that is only part of the story.
YOG also runs a Culture and Education Programme, which highlights cultural exchange between the participating nations. For young athletes, it’s an opportunity to meet their peers from around the globe, to learn about Olympic values and engage in debates and other events.
The culture programme includes various other strands. There are Young Ambassadors who are nominated by National Olympic Committees with the aim of promoting the Youth Olympics in their various regions. The Young Reporters Programme assists journalism students or graduates in developing their careers during the Games. Athlete Role Models are recently retired Olympians or current athletes who mentor the younger sportspeople.
Ultimately, while medals are great, they’re not the main focus. As Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the Olympic Committee, once said: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.”
Youth Olympics in numbers
• 6-18 Dates in October of the 2018 Youth Olympics, held in Buenos Aires, Argentina
• 32 Number of events included in the Youth Olympics 2018
• 206 Number of countries participating
• 3,998 Total number of athletes attending
• 50/50 Ratio of male and female athletes – for the first time, there will be an equal number of competitors of each gender
• Age: 16
• Sport: Squash
“I was selected to be the Youth Ambassador for my sport of squash to represent the Pan-Am region on the female side. Jonathan Walker of Jamaica represents the guys. An ambassador puts their sport out there, demonstrating its characteristics and qualities on the court. It is an amazing honour to have been selected from all the region’s talented players.
I started playing squash in the womb! My mum and dad used to play. As soon as I could walk I would go on court; as soon as I could hold a racquet they’d hit a ball with me. I had my first lesson at age seven. At my first tournament, aged eight, I won ‘most improved’. I won the Senior National Title at age 12. The next two years I won the Caribbean Senior title. I won the US Junior U17 Open in December 2017, and it’s been award on top of award since.
Squash isn’t a big sport in Barbados compared with, say, cricket or athletics. In the US sometimes international coaches work with the kids three times a week; I’m lucky if I can work with them three times a year.
My training is really paying off. I go to school from 8am to 2pm then train for about 45 minutes. And I do CrossFit on the weekends. I also train with big names twice a year, which is amazing. Because I travel so much I often have to catch up on schoolwork in my free time.
You need 90% mental skills to be the best. Pushing through the hard days – that’s what it takes to be a champion.
In Buenos Aires I’ll be playing against the top people in the world; it’s going to be a great experience. I get to see all the different cultures and how I stand against the other kids. I’m excited to represent my country and to be the ambassador. It is such an honour to put my island on the map through the sport of squash.”
• St Lucia
• Age: 16
• Sport: Swimming
“I started swimming at the age of five – I attended a school where swimming is part of the curriculum.
When I entered the 9-10 age group, I made the St Lucia National Team as a reserve to swim at the OECS Swimming Championship. My coach at the time told me not to give up, that I was a good swimmer and if I continued I would make the team the next year. And I did. At that point I knew I could be a good swimmer, with perseverance.
Career highlights so far include representing St Lucia from the age of nine at regional and international meets, winning Male Swimmer of the Year 2016 and 2017, representing St Lucia at the 2017 World Aquatics Championship in Hungary, and now being selected to represent St Lucia at Youth Olympic Games.
The Games gives me the chance to swim with some of the world’s fastest, and I feel proud and honoured to represent my country. My ambition is to be a full Olympian. I am really hoping to qualify for Tokyo 2020. But my eyes and dreams are on 2024 – not just to swim but to make finals.
My heroes include my dad, Jim Smith, for believing in me and teaching me the value of perseverance, and Chad le Clos, the South African swimmer, who won gold at the 2012 Olympics. I admire him for the conditions under which he had to train to get there.
My friends are all happy for me, and think I’m lucky because I get to travel a lot. But it can be difficult to balance school, life and training: knowing when it’s OK to miss swim practice to study for an exam, or travelling to a swim meet and missing school, or having to miss hanging out with my friends because I have training in the morning.
• St Vincent & the Grenadines
• Age: 17
• Sport: Rowing
“I started rowing two years ago. There was a camp on SVG where a coach came to deliver a programme; my teacher introduced me to the sport and I took a liking to it. Most of my friends don’t know much about rowing, but they say it looks amazing and want to learn more.
The sport requires a lot of hard training and dedication. I train six days a week, three to six hours a day, mostly in the water, though I do a lot of endurance training with weights. In terms of diet, you need a lot of carbs to give you energy, and to be able to endure the pain for a longer time. It’s taxing. In any spare time I have I write music – rap and dancehall. I write about life, injustice, difficulties, that kind of thing.
I feel so proud to represent my country.
I will be the first to represent SVG in the Youth Olympic Games at my sport, so it is really exciting. It’s also a chance to meet athletes from all over the world. I am looking forward to meeting the guys from Jamaica – I’d like to meet the legend, Usain Bolt! My goal is to win a gold medal for my country. That’s on my mind all the time.
My country isn’t really big in the sports industry, so I am looking forward to getting out there and representing SVG. I’m not just doing it for me – I am doing it for all of us, for people to know what my country is like.”
• Antigua & Barbuda
• Age: 16
• Sport: Kitesurfing
“Kitesurfing is a mix of kite-flying and surfing. When you are kiting you have the freedom to do whatever you want. You can surf, you can jump up to 30m, you can do freestyle tricks – it is one of the most fun things you can do.
When I was seven, my Dad started to learn kitesurfing; I thought it looked fun so I gave it a go. Then I started to compete all around the world. My parents have been supportive, as has my local Antiguan kite school, 40 Knots, as well as Kite Surf Antigua.
For the Olympics I’ll be Twin Tip racing: a five-minute slalom with eight people per heat; it’s pretty much about raw power and speed. It’s so intense; each race comes down to just a couple of seconds so it’s pretty exciting to watch. It is tactical, but also about speed.
I’ve been training with Michael Gebhardt, the USA Olympic windsurfing multiple medallist. The two disciplines relate a lot in terms of stance, posture and what you have to do with the board. My training partner is also in the US – the big countries have multiple places you can train every day, but I don’t really have an Antiguan to train with. I go to the gym three times a week with a trainer, and kite as often as possible. I’m usually out for up to four hours. I work on tactics, speed, pushing everything.
The Olympics is a huge deal and the atmosphere will be different to anything I’ve competed in before. I’ve been to Europe, China, South Korea, and got to know different cultures. It’s so cool to represent Antigua & Barbuda against all these countries with their huge teams – and I’m the only person! Antigua has never won an Olympic medal and of course I’d like to be the first to do that.
Kite Foiling will be a full Olympic sport by 2020 and I’d love to go to Tokyo. I’ve always watched the events on TV and thought it was super-cool so I am working towards that with everything I’ve got.”