If You Asked Me, Letters & Opinion

Heart of a True Champion

FOR an athlete who has carried her nation’s flag proudly for nearly two decades, world-ranked high jumper Levern Spencer certainly deserves more respect from her fellow Saint Lucians. After qualifying for the final in Rio – the first for any Saint Lucian in Olympic history – just days earlier, her good performance last Saturday brought out the bad in some among us.

A cursory glance at Spencer’s Wikipedia page would reveal that the 32-year-old athlete has been amassing a sterling reputation one jump at a time. With 17 gold medals, 4 silvers and 7 bronze at regional and international meets, one would have thought that the three-time Olympian was poised for a gold medal at the XXXI Olympiad in Brazil.

Expectations ran high at home, especially among many who claim to have left everything behind to see the pride of Babonneau capture a gold medal and create history for Saint Lucia twice in the space of a week. But fate would intervene and Levern would run under the bar twice and fail to medal.

As crestfallen as I was – not unlike many other Saint Lucians – I came away from that moment ever proud that our Spencer at least did her best to get us into the final, brave enough to show up last Saturday and wise enough to know that she was not up for the challenge when the bar was raised to 1.97 metres. These are decisions that champions must face daily. These are decisions that form part of their development.

Speaking to the media afterwards, Spencer said the following: “I think towards the end my approach was just inconsistent and I think that messed up my whole run in total but other than that I feel good.” Imagine that: feeling good after missing out on a medal that you have worked tirelessly for day after day, meet after meet.

There are many factors that athletes must face on event day and Spencer articulated one of them: feeling offbeat. But while she failed to medal, many Saint Lucians failed to acknowledge that her spirit and drive to succeed remains unbeaten. Finishing sixth in the event seems to mean nothing to some who have championed her name to get our points across when it suits us best. That her performances at events this year have ranked her second in the world seems trivial to some.

In the past year, Spencer has won gold at the Pan American Games held in Toronto, Canada and her first-ever Diamond League victory in Shanghai, China. Two years ago, she jumped high enough to earn a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. But if you spoke to some folks, these accomplishments mean diddly-squat to those who lack the knack to be appreciative of the achievements of others.

Social media is awash with derisive and counter-productive remarks about Saturday’s high jump final. If I’m to believe even quarter of what I read on Facebook, I’m left to believe that she’s a national disgrace, a six for a nine and an athlete not worthy of the praise she gets. She may well have run under the bar, but unlike her disrespectful compatriots, she certainly didn’t have to crawl.

But some of us do know better: that Saint Lucia’s most decorated athlete has been a national treasure and heroine long before Rio 2016. The fact that she achieves so much without ever being linked to performance-enhancing drugs and other scandals are testimony to her strengths and courage to succeed despite not clearing the bar on occasion. Her humility and ability to inspire others, too, are other qualities for which sponsors should be signing her up on the spot.

The fact that Spencer has given her best for the most part of her life, lifting our spirit and amassing a litany of honours to prove it, is as good enough as any Olympic gold medal, if you asked me. How many of us can veritably admit that we strive as much as she does, anyway? Spencer has won many golds but the Olympic gold remains elusive due to her failure to cross the bar. But we should at least be thankful that Levern Spencer actually crossed our Saint Lucian path. That Levern went from placing 27th in Beijing (2008), 19th in London (2012) and 6th in Rio (2016) should be a remarkable feat in itself.

Sometimes we need to be in a situation to be able to empathize with other people’s situations. While I might never become an Olympian, I would not be caught ever telling my daughters that they are losers because they missed a goal in football. Neither should our athletes – and especially our youngsters – have to hear us castigate people for failing at times. How convenient it is that we post all those philosophical quotes on Facebook about the keys to success only to appear hypocritical in subsequent posts!

During that same post-event interview, Spencer said something that I immediately pondered after seeing her fail to jump the bar last Saturday. She said: “I just look forward to the end of the season but thank God I finished injury-free so I can still do a couple of meets before the season ends.”

That reconciliation in itself speaks to one of the hallmarks of winners: that what some see as disappointments and fodder to be used to be disrespectful, winners pick themselves up, refocus and prepare for the next big challenge ahead. Maybe God had a reason why this sister soars about bars set high rather than crawl with crabs in a barrel. Spencer might just be life’s way of teaching us to understand what greatness is.

While I’m at it, I want to say thank you and congratulations to all of our athletes who represented the blue, yellow, black and white flag in Rio this summer: Levern Spencer (high jump), JeanelleScheper (high jump), Jordan Augier (swimming), Jahvid Best (athletics) and Stephanie Lovell (laser radial). It takes hard work to qualify for such an international event and many of you do so with little or no funding from institutions that are yet to appreciate the value and influence of sports.

Special thanks, too, to all those coaches, mentors, commentators, sports journalists, fans and teachers who continue to nurture and encourage our athletes under difficult circumstances. Quite often, you are never recognized – coincidence? – but what you do is way beyond personal service; it’s actually national service.

If anyone reading this comes away with the notion that endorsing and embracing failure should be a quality everyone should have, then you read wrong. The most salient point I want to convey, however, is that history is created in stages and that the heart of a true champion never quits despite the defeats.

It took Spencer three trips to the Olympics to actually earn a Saint Lucian a place in the final. If we lose sight of that remarkable achievement, I doubt her naysayers even have/had the courage and faith of ever seeing her medal at the Olympics in the first place.

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