Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Tessa Sanderson: JA is ‘the surprise country’

Tessa Sanderson Team Great Britain 2012 Ambassador poses for a portrait on March 28, 2011 in London, England.
(March 27, 2011 - Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images Europe)

Observer column | by Jean Lowrie-Chin | 30 Jan 2012

Tessa Sanderson commanded our attention at the RJR Sports Awards. The Jamaican born UK Olympic Gold medalist reminded us that in sport, and may we add in life, there are no guarantees. Sanderson traced her life for us from her idyllic childhood in St. Elizabeth, proudly declaring of her breadbasket parish, “you want it, we have it”. She recalled walking to primary school, ‘sharp pleats in our uniforms’.

Soon, her family’s migration took her north to England where she gloried in the diversity of the London society: “I was now in the home of the world.” How can we ever underestimate the power of a perceptive affirming teacher? For Usain Bolt, it was Margaret Lee and for Tessa Sanderson it was her physical education teacher Sonia Lannaman who watched the agile 13-year-old toss a cricket ball 199 feet and immediately saw her stellar potential.

Her family and teachers kept Sanderson as focused on her academic development as on her sport. “Education is the key to success,” she stated, adding that her eventual climb to stardom was due to “a rock solid mind”. From 1976 to 1996, during which time she finally achieved the gold and many other accolades, Sanderson described 20 years of sacrifice. When she left school and started to work, she had a nine to five day and then trained sometimes until 10 pm.

“I was having my evening meal after training, but who cares? I was chasing my goal,” she told us. During those years she singled out two people who inspired her to persevere: “My coach Wilf Paish, and my father who worked all hours to give his best … I was always his champion.”

But Tessa Sanderson learned dramatically about the huge risk all sportswomen and men face: while participating in a heptathlon she ruptured her Achilles tendon and then broke her throwing arm, on the very same day. It took her two years to recover, and a fierce rivalry with fellow UK thrower Fatima Whitbread to take her to the top of her game.

“Healthy rivalry is fantastic – it is always good to take your crown,” enthused Sanderson. When she mounted the stand at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 to receive her Olympic Gold, she said she was “hilariously happy – it was the best feeling in the world. I shed tears of joy.”

It was ironical that having arrived back in the UK to a hero’s welcome, Tessa found that she had lost her job. Her champion’s spirit was not dampened. She decided to embark on a career in the media and later established the Tessa Sanderson Foundation to assist young athletes, including those with physical disabilities.

Our hearts sang as Sanderson poured out her love for Jamaica. “You are the surprise country! You have great actors, broadcasters, high court judges.” Turning to sports, she says it has given Jamaica a special branding. “You are like gazelles in motion – Holding and Walsh bowling like lighning. Deon Hemmings (in Atlanta). In Beijing the speed King himself – Usain Bolt!”

She referred to our fight for justice, the years of struggle for Jamaicans Dorie and Neville Lawrence whose son Stephen had been murdered in 1993 in a hate crime in the UK, and whose two killers were finally sentenced last year.

She reminded us that we’ve had three Miss Worlds and that we run our own sports academy. How true! Remember the days when we thought our athletes could only become world class if they trained abroad? Now the world is coming to fast-class here!

Tessa Sanderson said, “the tide has changed … you should be nurturing what is in your own backyard.” With London Olympics 2012 on the horizon, she says Jamaicans are the chosen topic, especially for the vast Jamaican community, getting ready to receive our stars.

Sanderson is a close friend of another UK-Jamaica, RJR Group’s dynamic Yvonne Wilks. They bring back memories of another “Jam-Brit”, the late Pauline Little Gray who in her short life made her mark of excellence in journalism, export promotion and shipping. As Sanderson said, ‘healthy rivalry is fantastic’ and when one has to measure up against achievers in a highly competitive environment, one exceeds expectations. Last week New York Times columnist Thomas l. Friedman wrote that “Average is over”. He said with so much clever technology, only the most educated and diligent will make it.

At the memorable celebration of India’s 63rd Republic Day at the High Commission, Foreign Affairs Minister A.J. Nicholson noted the assistance we had been receiving from the Indian Government in IT training – we could not want for better. There we spoke with that exceptional math teacher, Jayshree Kumar who would like to see gifted underprivileged Jamaican children benefitting from boarding facilities and be nurtured in an optimum learning environment.

At a PSOJ Chairman’s Forum last Tuesday where Finance Minister Peter Phillips was guest speaker, investment guru Sushil Jain suggested intensive training for ‘half a million craftsmen’. When Jamaicans are properly trained, we cannot find more efficient, resourceful workers anywhere. Minister Phillips gave a short solid presentation, emphasizing the importance of retaining low interest rates and reducing bureaucracy. In his previous ministerial posts, we have known him to be a stickler for performance, and look forward to his effective leadership of this, Jamaica’s most challenging ministry.

The cries of the poor and unemployed are growing louder. A passionate Tessa Sanderson tells us we are the talk of London because of our sporting fame. If we could take a leaf from JAAA/IAAF’s Teddy McCook’s book of discipline, tough training and fair play, Jamaica can become the positive ‘talk’ of the world. We have the goodwill and the ingenuity to do it – let us surprise ourselves.

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