Jamaica's High School Champs 2013

Javon Francis, Champs mascot Champsy, Odail Todd and Delano Williams

By Dania Bogle, writing from Kingston

The annual Inter-Secondary Schools Boys and Girls Athletic Championships is  known as an event for Jamaican high school students but in recent years, several athletes from around the region have been giving it a stronger Caribbean flavour.
In fact, the reigning Class One 100m and 200m champion, Delano Williams, is an athlete from the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI).
Williams became known world-wide after he won the 200m gold medal representing his homeland at the 2012 IAAF World Junior Championships in Barcelona.
To Jamaicans, Delano Williams has been a household name for several years now.
That's because the sprinter has been burning up the track representing Munro College, the high school he has attended in Jamaica since 2008.
He gained legendary status at Champs this year after becoming the first athlete since 1986 to successfully defend the sprint double, clocking a Turks & Caicos national junior record 20.27 seconds to win the 200m.
This year saw the 103rd Champs – officially the Inter-Secondary Schools Sports Association (ISSA) Championships - held at Jamaica’s National Stadium from 13 – 16 March.
It has long been the test lab for Jamaican school sports talent, in which the likes of the now world-famous Bolts, Blakes, Fraser-Pryces and others have honed their craft in public.  
From TCI to Kingston
Munro’s track coach, Neil Harrison, had been a physical education teacher in the TCI.
At the end of his contract, he was asked by several of his charges if they could return with him to Jamaica.
In the end, five boys followed.
"I saw Delano running down a softball ball in PE class and that's how it started," Harrison told Caribbean Intelligence©. 
Three of the five boys have since moved on after earning scholarships to attend college, while a fourth, Angelo Garland, finished fifth in the Class One boys’ 400m in the latest Champs event.
Harrison says that the boys now fit in but, in the beginning, it was not so easy to get them to agree to go to school in Jamaica after life on the Turks and Caicos.
"You can't tell the difference [now], but it was difficult at first because, before that, all Jamaica has been known for is crime and violence."
Jamaica – a place for sprinters
Williams told Caribbean Intelligence© that he now feels like a Jamaican and, despite numerous offers of foreign scholarships, he has decided to stay in Jamaica after high school to train with celebrated coach Glen Mills, who also works with two-time Olympic sprint champion Usain Bolt.
"Jamaica is the place to be for sprinters," Williams said. "My talent would have died if it wasn't for Mr Harrison."
He added that, while there are high school athletic championships in the TCI, they are nothing compared to the Jamaican event - the largest for high schools in the English-speaking Caribbean.
"I had to adjust and actually co-operate with people watching,” he said.
Cayman-born Jorel Bellafonte has also benefited from attending school in Jamaica.
Bellafonte, 17, was born to a Caymanian mother and Jamaican father and has spent the last six years attending Calabar High.
The 800m specialist told Caribbean Intelligence© that he had been pushed by his father to attend school in Jamaica after leaving primary school in Grand Cayman.
He started out as a sprinter, but track coach Michael Clarke felt he would make a better middle distance runner.
That switch paid off, as he currently holds the Cayman Islands national junior and senior records for 800m and has represented his country at the Carifta Championships.
The 800m record stands at 1:59.58 and Bellafonte is to date the only Caymanian to go below two minutes in the event.
He captured the Cayman Islands’ only medal at the 2012 Carifta Games winning silver in the 1500m. He also won silver in the event in Montego Bay, Jamaica in 2011.
“I don’t miss home that much, because all of my friends are here and most of my family as well and Jamaicans welcome me and treat me as their own, so I think this is my home right now.”
Bellafonte, who won the Class One 1500m gold and 800m silver at 2013 Champs, admitted that he doesn’t see his talent developing in Jamaica, where athletes are better known for success in sprinting.
So, it’s no surprise that, after high school, he plans to apply for colleges in the United States.
Track and books
Performances on the track usually take centre stage during the annual championships but, for the last few seasons, the issue of performance in the classroom has shared the spotlight.
Several of the most promising youngsters have missed their big chance to compete inside Jamaica's National Stadium in the biggest show for a high school athlete.
And the reason is because they did not make the academic cut. 
This year, two of the biggest names - Odean Skeen of Wolmer’s Boys and Demar Robinson of Calabar - did not take part in what should have been their final Champs after failing to make the require minimum academic grade.
Skeen, the 2010 100m Youth Olympics Champion and 2012 World Junior Championships 100m bronze medallist, would have been a leading contender for the 100m Class One title.
The Inter-Secondary Schools Sports Association (ISSA) runs the competition. Its vice-president, Keith Wellington, explained to Caribbean Intelligence© the rationale behind the minimum requirement system.
"The rules were implemented because we had serious concerns about the scholastic part of students' participation. We are not the youth arm of the national sporting bodies. We are schools who organise co-curricular activities," he said.
Interestingly, while Robinson was not able to represent his school at Champs, he has been named for the national team, which will compete at the Carifta Championships in the Bahamas.
Top-level performances
Even with Skeen’s absence, the 100m Champs boys’ final was still hot, with eventual winner Williams, the 2011 IAAF World Youth 100m champion and 200m silver medallist Odail Todd and 2011 Carifta Championships silver medallist Jevaughn Minzie all in the line-up.
As one spectator put it: “Where else but in Jamaica would that happen?”
Neville Bell, who coaches the St George’s College football team which won the 2012 Manning Cup title, has come under the microscope for the academic performance of his charges, who also must abide by ISSA guidelines.
Mr Bell believes that the rivalry between schools is what gives Champs its fervour.
“There is nothing like that [elsewhere]. This is about the rivalry that goes with this. It is wonderful to see the spirit…fantastic to see them cheering on their school.”
He noted that several of Jamaica’s premier athletes, including Bolt and West Indies cricketer Chris Gayle, were not academically gifted, but have gone on to become two of the wealthiest athletes in the world.
Elton Johnson, coach of Ascot High School’s track team, used the meet to build a competitive culture at his school, which is fairly new to the championships.
"We want them to gain experience. I know that all the athletes we enter will not win, but gaining the experience to compete in such a prestigious competition is great in itself,” he said.
“Greatest ever” Champs?
This year’s Champs was touted by aficionados as the “greatest ever” after 30 records were shattered, more than 20 of them on the final day alone.
Those records fell, not only on the track, but in the field as well.
The atmosphere on the closing afternoon could have rivalled any day of track and field action inside an Olympic Stadium.
The rivalry was intense, with predictions for the overall titles “going out the window” by the final day.
The contest for the girls' title went down to the wire before Holmwood Technical brushed aside the defending champions and pre-meet favourites Edwin Allen.
If athletic prowess on the track was the star, then the co-stars were the 25,000- plus spectators in the jam-packed stadium.
They waved banners and school flags in a kaleidoscope of colours, accompanied  by the constant pounding of drums in the bleachers, blaring trumpets, and the low drone of chatter, with the occasional high-pitched shriek during an especially hot race.
The excitement reached fever pitch when Williams anchored the Munro team to a record breaking victory (3:09.21) in the final event, the 4x400m boys open relay.
And the winner is….
Calabar and Holmwood may have taken the boys’ and girls’ championships titles, but high school track was the real winner.
And the fact that three of the reigning world youth sprint champions live and train in Jamaica also places into perspective the country’s, and the rest of the region’s,  chances of remaining at the top of the global sprint stage for some years to come.
Jamaica has been leading the world on the track since Usain Bolt stole the show at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, with wins in the 100m and 200m in world record times and his repeat performance at the London 2012 Olympics.
Bolt and his heir apparent, Yohan Blake, the reigning IAAF 100m World Champion and Olympic double sprint silver medallist, both got their start at Champs.
Both athletes are expected to help Jamaica remain on top in Rio in 2016 and the hope is that they will be joined there by Todd and Skeen among others.
Williams, who as a citizen of the Turks and Caicos Islands holds a UK passport, might not have been quite ready to represent Great Britain in London 2012, but is now a hot prospect for selection on the team to Rio in 2016.
With a struggling economy, an IMF deal looming and poverty levels at an all-time high, their countrymen’s sporting excellence is often all the average Jamaican has to brighten their mood.
If 2013 Champs has been anything to judge by, Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean will have a few events to look forward to this season.
Williams may be too old to defend his Carifta 200m gold medal in the Bahamas this year, but several other athletes who starred at Champs - including Todd and Minzie - will hope to fly their flags high at the end of Easter weekend – and, later this season, at the IAAF World Youth Championships in Ukraine.
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