What started off as an effort to be good at something anything has turned into a passionate pursuit of excellence. Sprinter Kelly-Ann Baptiste wants to be remembered as an all-time great.
“I played netball. It just wasn’t for me. I couldn’t handle jumping around on a court for an hour plus. And then tennis, I always had problems with my swings and the coach always cursed me out, so I quit that.”
Encouraged by a friend to try track and field, Baptiste joined Zenith athletics club. It was the start of a journey that has already taken her to two World Championships in Athletics meets and the last two editions of the Olympic Games. But Baptiste is not satisfied with mere participation.
“I’ve always told my friends, everybody around me, that I don’t want to run track and field just to get by and pay the bills. I want to be in track and field to be great, I want to be known as one of the greatest athletes to ever run the female hundred. I don’t want to be average. That’s the main thing that drives me on a daily basis. It’s okay to run 11.0-something, but why can’t I run 10.8. It’s that desire to be great that keeps me going.”
Baptiste took a giant stride towards greatness on June 5 this year when she got to the line in 10.84 seconds in the women’s 100 metres, at the National Training Centre (NTC) Stars Invitational meet, in Clermont, Florida. The winning time, a new Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) record, puts Baptiste in 25th spot on the all-time women’s 100 metres performance list. It was also the fastest time in the world this year for close to one month.
Baptiste produced two more legal sub-11 clockings, 10.98 on June 26 and 10.93 on July 10, proving that her 10.84 bolt was no fluke.
In June last year, Baptiste made a major breakthrough at the T&T Championships. In the women’s 100 metres final, she stopped the clock at 10.94 seconds to retain her title and become the country’s first-ever sub-11 woman.
“It was important for my confidence. It was important as a motivating factor. And I think, most of all, it was important for the sport and female athletics in T&T. It was just a huge, huge deal for me.”
T&T has a strong tradition in sprinting. Hasely Crawford grabbed 100 metres gold at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, and Ato Boldon captured the 200 metres world title in 1997. Boldon is also a quadruple Olympic medallist, while Darrel Brown earned World Championship 100 metres silver in 2003 and Richard Thompson seized silver in the 2008 Olympic Games 100 metres before anchoring T&T to the runner-up spot in the sprint relay final.
But for all the country’s success on the track, only one T&T woman has climbed the rostrum at a senior global meet, Josanne Lucas making history with 400m hurdles bronze at the 2009 World Championships, in Berlin, Germany. Baptiste wants to change that statistic.
“I’m kind of tired of us going through life and just being average, because we’re more than average. We’ve had so many talented female athletes pass through the track and field system in our country, and if I could tell you where any of them are today ... I can’t. It’s just sad. I feel we deserve more respect than we get, and it’s not anybody else’s fault but ours. We just need to rise to a certain level and accept the responsibility that comes with being a great athlete, whether it is training hard or just doing the things that you know you’re supposed to be doing to get to a certain level.”
Baptiste has attained a high level this season, and should be among the top finishers in the women’s 100 metres, at the IAAF/VTB Bank Continental Cup, in Split, Croatia.
Baptiste is no stranger to global success. In 2003, at the World Youth (under-18) Championships, in Sherbrooke, Canada, she bagged bronze in the 100 metres final in 11.58 seconds.
In 2004, at the Central American and Caribbean (CAC) Junior (under-20) Championships, in Mexico, Baptiste earned gold in the 200 metres and silver in the 100.
And less than three weeks later, the T&T sprinter appeared in another global final. At the World Junior Championships, in Grosseto, Italy, she finished fourth in the half-lap event, missing out on bronze by one-thousandth of a second.
Baptiste made her Olympic debut at the Athens Games, but it was not a memorable experience. Just 17 at the time, Baptiste held her own running the lead-off leg in the 4x100 metres relay. However, she was unable to complete the baton exchange with Fana Ashby, and T&T exited the event.
In 2005, Baptiste represented the country at the Carifta Games, in Tobago, the island of her birth. First, she crushed her rivals in the under-20 100 metres final ... among the vanquished was Jamaican Shelly-Ann Fraser, the sprinter who would go on to become Olympic champion at the 2008 Beijing Games and 2009 world champion. Baptiste then completed the sprint double with victory in the 200 metres. In the championship race, she got the better of another Jamaican, Anneisha McLaughlin, by three-hundredths of a second.
Baptiste says double gold at Carifta 2005 is her biggest achievement to date.
“It was at home, and everything was just perfect. I didn’t think I was going to win the 200 ... I won that. That came off of me going to LSU (Louisiana State University) in January, and making such big improvements, coming back and PRing. That was just amazing for me.”
The best young athletes in the Caribbean battle for supremacy annually, at the Carifta Games. The standard of sprinting is very high at the regional junior meet.
“Seeing the Jamaicans run at Carifta, then moving on to Pan American Juniors and World Juniors and seeing how they did, I realised that if I compete at Carifta, if I could beat them or be with them, I could make something of myself.”
In 2008, Baptiste emerged as the fastest woman on the American collegiate circuit, copping top spot in the NCAA Championship 100 metres final. Earlier in the year, she had claimed the NCAA Indoor Championship 60 metres title.
Baptiste seemed set to make her mark at the Beijing Olympics. But it was not to be. In the 100 metres dash, she finished sixth in her quarter-final heat in 11.42 seconds. She had been eliminated in identical fashion at the 2005 World Championships in Athletics, in Helsinki, Finland.
“It was so ironic that the same time I ran in Helsinki in ’05 and got kicked out of the quarter-finals, the same time I ran in Beijing and got kicked out, so that got me even more upset.
“It (the Olympics) was a disappointment, but at the same time I kind of put things into perspective. I got there late, and I think that took a mental toll on me. Mentally, I told myself I was tired because of the long collegiate season, and then coming there and losing my bags and just the whole bunch of stuff just made me psychologically take myself out of it. Even though consciously I didn’t realise it, that’s what was happening.”
There was more disappointment for Baptiste in the 4 x 100 metres relay. A baton bungle on the final handover curtailed T&T’s bid for a championship race berth.
“I just had to regroup and realise the world doesn’t end there.”
At the 2009 World Championships, in Berlin, Germany, Baptiste bowed out in the semi-final round of the 100 metres, the T&T sprinter finishing fifth in heat one in 11.07 seconds. Baptiste also exited in the semis in the 200 metres. She was fourth in heat three in 22.96. And in the 4x100 metres relay, the T&T combination of Reyare Thomas, Baptiste, Ayanna Hutchinson and Semoy Hackett finished seventh in the final in 43.43 seconds.
Baptiste grew up in Plymouth, Tobago. She describes the village as quiet and close-knit.
“Everybody’s really close, everybody knows that I run track, everybody supports me.”
But like every community, Plymouth has its negatives as well.
“Another thing that motivated me to really do well was to get out of the status quo of what my village was. There used to be a lot of young girls some of them don’t graduate from high school and they just get out of school and get pregnant and there’s nothing going on for them. That kind of motivated me a lot to do as well as I wanted to in track. And also, my mother kept on telling me about what the lifestyle was there and she didn’t want me to eventually grow up being that way.”
Baptiste has worked hard at her craft, and is reaping the rewards. She is now a professional athlete and contracted to adidas until 2012. On the pro circuit, she gets the opportunity to travel extensively. But the Plymouth sprinter does not do much sight-seeing.
“I haven’t had as much fun as I should when I come to these meets ... I guess (it’s) because I’m kind of reserved. I’m not the kind of person to go out on the streets and walk by myself to see a place. I don’t really do that stuff, but I actually think that it’s beneficial. You have to find a balance. Sometimes you have to realise that you’re not in the sport just to make money. It’s about having fun at the same time because that’s the only reason you started it in the first place. When you have fun, you’re more relaxed, and the better chance you have of running a better time or a better race.”
So, what are her interests outside of athletics?
“I’m a really boring person,” says a laughing Baptiste. “My interests? I’m not even going to lie to you, I don’t really do much. Music, I love music. That’s my thing. And play games, like my video games.”
If you spot Baptiste wearing headphones, ahead of a race, she’s likely to be listening to gospel music. Her spiritual focus keeps her motivated.
“I have a dream of being greater than I even expect myself to be. I know it’s going to take a lot. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to take a lot of hard work, dedication and belief in myself. I don’t think God put us here to just be average people. I think he put us here to fulfil the potential that we have. If I were to die and not bring that forth, I would be very disappointed.”
Prepared by Kwame Laurence for the IAAF ‘Focus on Athletes’ project. © 2010 IAAF
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