Trinidad and Tobago's athletes found the going tough in 2021.
For the first time since the 2004 Olympic Games, the country did not earn a track and field medal on the world's biggest sporting stage, the only individual top eight finish at Tokyo 2020 coming from Jereem "The Dream" Richards.
A bronze medallist in the men's 200 metres at the 2017 World Championships, Richards was hoping for precious metal in the same event at the Tokyo Games. It was not to be, the Point Fortin sprinter finishing eighth in the half-lap final in 20.39 seconds.
Yes, the podium is always the target. There are only three spots available, however, and there is never an absolutely level playing field for the aspiring athletes. This reality has been all the more evident since March 2020, Covid-19 stepping in to wreak havoc in the world of sport.
"Getting to the Olympic final was definitely a victory for me," Richards declares. "It wasn't the end goal but it was part of the journey to my end goal.
"Preparing for the Olympic Games had a lot of challenges," the Florida-based athlete explains. "From being under lockdown to dealing with the mental aspect and stress of if you'll be ready in time for the games, and also having some small injuries along the way. But I stayed strong, prayed about every situation, and I had help from my sports psychologist Liza Mohammed."
With all the uncertainty surrounding Covid-19, it was indeed a challenge for athletes to remain in the game mentally. The role of the sports psychologist was and continues to be crucial in negotiating these turbulent pandemic waters.
Richards was not the only success story in 2021. Tyra Gittens, Deon Lendore, Michelle-Lee Ahye, Portious Warren and Dwight St Hillaire are among the T&T athletes who shone brightly in the face of adversity.
Gittens was superb on the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) circuit, earning the indoor pentathlon and outdoor heptathlon titles.
Though Gittens is 11th in the heptathlon on the 2021 world performance list with her national record score of 6,418 points, the existing qualification system kept her out of the Olympic hep. But she shrugged off that disappointment, the Texas A&M University student finishing 10th in the women's long jump on her Olympic debut.
In 2021, six new T&T track and field records - three outdoor and three indoor--entered the books. They all belong to the 23-year-old Gittens.
Lendore just missed out on a lane in the Tokyo 2020 men's 400m final, finishing fourth in his semifinal heat in 44.93 seconds for ninth spot overall. He followed up with 400 bronze at the Wanda Diamond League final in Zurich, Switzerland.
A resurgent Ahye was ninth fastest in the Tokyo 2020 women's 100m dash. She fell short of a championship race berth by the narrowest of margins--one-thousandth of a second.
Warren's 2021 campaign was all but over after five outings. But then, a qualified athlete withdrew from the Tokyo 2020 women's shot put event, and she got a late Olympic call. Warren made full use of the lifeline, throwing a personal best 18.75 metres for ninth spot in the qualifying competition. The Olympic debutante went on to finish 11th in the final.
St Hillaire was a solid 19th overall in the Tokyo 2020 men's 400m. It was in the 4x4 final, though, that his warrior spirit was on display.
A newbie at the Olympic Games, St Hillaire suffered a leg injury while performing third leg duties in the championship race. The Tobago quartermiler, however, refused to stop, risking further injury in his successful bid to get the baton to anchorman Machel Cedenio. While T&T had to settle for eighth spot, St Hillaire won the hearts of many with his lion-hearted run.
Excellence in spite of all the Covid-19 roadblocks that exist is to be applauded. In the case of junior athletes, double the plaudits!
Hats off to sprinter Leah Bertrand for reaching the women's 100m semis at the World U20 Championships in Kenya. Congratulations too to Shakeem McKay and Dillon Leacock for qualifying for the global event.
Also earning commendation was Rae-Anne Serville. The University of Southern California (USC) student was consistent on the US collegiate circuit. She bettered the 54.85 seconds World U20 women's 400m qualifying standard many times, but opted out of the meet. In one of her outings for USC, Serville stopped the clock at 54.18 seconds to establish a new T&T indoor junior record.
Janae De Gannes deserves special mention. Just 14 at the time, the Bishop Anstey High School student jumped 6.06 metres at a local meet in March. The big leap earned De Gannes third spot on the 2021 world under-16 performance list.
All the above was achieved with the backdrop of a global pandemic. Richards understands the pressures faced by his fellow athletes, and sums up 2021 in one word.
"Challenging. I believe that everyone has their own individual struggles. And for me at some points it was definitely challenging."
Late in 2020, Richards switched camps, moving from Alabama, USA to Florida. Leaving his University of Alabama coach Blaine Wiley to train under the guidance of Lance Brauman was a difficult decision.
"The 2021 season for me, after changing coaches and being stuck home in 2020, I think I was able to accomplish a lot. I didn't hit the end goal of getting an Olympic medal, but other than that I made a final and I'm somewhat satisfied.
"The lesson learned in 2021 that can help me in 2022 is to enjoy and cherish each moment, even if it's good or bad, and use it to become better or improve on yourself. My 2022 preparations are going well. I'm happy with where I'm at mentally and physically. My main goals for next season are to be better than I was last year and to always be a medal contender and on the podium."
Richards is expected to be in Birmingham, England next year to defend his Commonwealth Games 200m title. He is also targeting the World Championships in Eugene, Oregon, USA.
Though his focus is on the track, Richards has taken notice of the election to office of four former national athletes. Cuquie Melville, Zwede Hewitt, Jamaal James and 2013 400m hurdles world champion Jehue Gordon are now directors on the National Association of Athletics Administrations of T&T (NAAATT) executive board.
"Seeing that the association has the help of a younger generation," says Richards, "my expectations are: help for athletes to transition from juniors to seniors; and more meets so local athletes have an opportunity to improve. The athletes' interests can be better served if the administration and athletes have regular meetings where we speak about problems and possible solutions."
Richards is hopeful for T&T athletics, and expects St Hillaire and sprinters Adell Colthrust and Kion Benjamin to do well in 2022. If everything goes according to plan, "challenging" will not be the sentiment most associated with the country's athletes. Richards suggests a different word for 2022.