Athletes from the Thomas Saunders Secondary School (TSSS) in St. Vincent and the Grenadines are rearing to hit the tracks and showcase Vincentian pride at the 121st staging of the Penn Relays Carnival, at Franklin Field Stadium, at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
James Cordice, the driving force behind the nation’s participation in the biggest collegiate track and field event in the United States, told Caribbean Life, in an exclusive interview, that all plans are in place to host the 17-member TSSS contingent.
“To date, the stage has been set,” said the Clare Valley native, a former president of the Philadelphia-based St. Vincent and the Grenadines Organization of Pennsylvania (SVGOP), who, four years ago, undertook the extraordinary initiative in having a Vincentian school compete in the illustrious games for the very first time.
“What happens when perseverance combines with resilience, dreams and hard work?” he asked. “The answer has been revealing itself over the past four years.
“But this year, it’s crystal clear, because TSSS is 10 years old and will participate in the Penn Relays, as St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ lone school, for the fifth consecutive year,” Cordice added.
He said the contingent of 13 athletes and four officials leaves St. Vincent and the Grenadines on April 17, arriving in Philadelphia the next day, at 12:25 a.m.
The athletes – accompanied by Head Coach Godfrey “Fuzzy” Harry, assistant coach Ronique Dowers, and chaperons Dawana Balcombe and Farrah Bailey, teachers at TSSS – will compete in the 4x100m and 4x400m Boys and Girls event from April 23-25.
The seven-member female team comprises: Kerina Hooper, Cheslyn Simper, Olesha Ryan, Mekeila Slater, Jasmine Robertson, Zamesha Myle and Rownesha Spencer.
The six male athletes are: Rogike Thorpe, Zenron Chance, Kailon Kirby, Neilo Thomas, Erasto Da Silva and Mickial Legair.
“Special thanks to Principal John Renton, Coach Harry and Teacher Balcombe for this effort on track, working so diligently to keep TSSS in the game for the fifth year,” Cordice said.
He said, while the venture continues to be a financial challenge, “there are systematic programs in place to ensure that our children are properly cared for while they are here [in Philadelphia].”
At the same time, the indefatigable Cordice dismissed critics, whom, he said, “still, after five years, seek to minimize the effectiveness of this program.
“I am reminding you [general public] that our young athletes must be exposed; they must be able to display their talents to the world,” he asserted. “The Penn Relays continues to provide one of the best platforms for scrutiny.”
Cordice also rejected a recent report, in a local publication, which inferred that the mission lacks proper structure.
“Without structure, it would have been nearly impossible to navigate through the more than 40 steps on the journey from St. Vincent and the Grenadines to Pennsylvania,” he said.
On completion of the games, on April 25, the athletes and officials will be celebrated that night at a grand reception and recognition ceremony at the Vincentian-owned Calabash Restaurant on Lancaster Avenue in Philadelphia.
During that event, the Otis C. Jack Award will be introduced and presented, Cordice said.
Jack, a former coach and educator, went to the Great Beyond on Jan. 26, succumbing to cancer. He was only 46.
Cordice said Jack had played a key role in enabling TSSS to initially compete in the Penn Relays.
Last Saturday, Vincentians in New York responded to an appeal, despite the blustery and relatively frigid weather, to support the TSSS athletes by converging on the sprawling Marine Park in Brooklyn for a fund-raising walk.
The event was organized by the Brooklyn-based Club St. Vincent, Inc., a premiere educational and cultural group.
“It was very good,” Ancilla Friday, the group’s public relations officer and former president, told Caribbean Life about the event. “The spirits were high. We’ll definitely do it again next year.”
As they take the tracks on the final day of the meet, April 25, the TSSS athletes can expect to get boisterous support, as usual, from at least Vincentians in New York, who will mainly trek by bus for about 2 ½ hours.
Laverne McDowald-Thompson, president of the Brooklyn-based Council of St. Vincent and the Grenadines Organizations, U.S.A. Inc. (COSAGO), the umbrella Vincentian group in the US, said her group will again organize a bus-load of nationals to give the TSSS athletes vociferous support.
“It’s very imperative for us to make a special effort to go to support them,” said the former school teacher in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. “In these kinds of events, you need lots of support.
“What they’re doing for our country, it’s about cheering them on, and waving the [national] flag, too,” she added.