Sport

The softball game from which a sprint star was born

Coach Neil Harrison relates how he discovered outstanding Turks & Caicos sprinter Delano Williams

BY HG HELPS Editor-at-Large helpsh@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, August 03, 2014    

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DELANO Williams is well-known in Jamaica as the first, and still the only, foreign athlete to win the 100 and 200 metres events in the same year at the ISSA Boys' and Girls' Athletic Championship.

That feat was accomplished in 2012 — his penultimate appearance at the championship, popularly called 'Champs'.

Strange, it is for a young man from the Turks and Caicos Islands, not known for even a semblance of a sprinting tradition, or pedigree, to beat the best of what Jamaica had to offer, and do so consistently.

Now, the 20-year-old man who opted to compete for Great Britain has the World Junior Athletic Championship 200-metre title printed across his chest, due in the main to the sharpness of a Jamaican athletics and football coach, who has a knack for spotting talent and who proved to be dead accurate when his nose was pointed in the young man's direction.

Neil Harrison, recently appointed head coach of Kingston College's track and field squad, as well as physical education (PE) teacher at the 89-year-old institution, 'discovered' Williams's true talent and in the most astonishing manner.

The former Tivoli Gardens Comprehensive High School quarter-miler had left Munro College at Potsdam, South East St Elizabeth, to take on an assignment as a physical education teacher at a high school in the British dependency in 2003, that would last four-and-a-half years.

He had accepted a teaching offer, following his formal training at the GC Foster College of Physical Education and Sport, and practical stints at Munro, Clarendon College and St George's College.

The prospect of a new challenge excited him.

"One of the reasons for going to Turks and Caicos was that I didn't see them on the map as it relates to track and field and I like that kind of challenge, so I said I would give it a try," Harrison told the Jamaica Observer in a recent interview.

"They didn't really have a lot of talent, and limited talent without any form of structure ... you really not going anywhere. They love the sport (track and field) but the know-how was a problem.

"I was teaching a PE class at the co-ed school and we were having a male vs female game and that is how I saw Delano's competitiveness, because he decided that there was no way the girls were going to beat the boys, and the girls were really giving them a hard time that day.

"The boys had already scored a lot of runs and the girls were now batting. Someone hit a ball and it was heading to the boundary and Delano raced after it. I said, 'no man, this is not normal speed. For a 12-year-old this looks good'.

"So I called him and he said, 'Sir, I am not into any Jamaican sport' ... those were his exact words as a 12-year-old. He went on 'all I know, Sir, is basketball and softball, that's what we know here'.

"He said 'Sir, you know what I mean, track and field is what Jamaicans love ... this (softball) is our thing', and I started to talk to him," Harrison said.

Convincing the budding junior athlete to go into competition mode was more difficult than injecting a youngster terrified of needles. It had to take a little effort from other school staff members, who were fully briefed by Harrison about the potential star.

"One day he came into the staff room, which is predominantly Jamaicans, 90 per cent of them are Jamaican teachers. The staff backed him up and said to Delano, 'this man is a good man who can take you places, just give the sport a try'.

"Turks and Caicos have the inter-high schools championship, like our Boys' Champs, but only five schools took part in those days, so I had to prepare Delano for that. He won the 100, 200 and he anchored the 4x100 to victory and said to me, 'Sir, I like it," revealed Harrison of Williams's now conversion to the world of sprinting.

Soon, reality hit Harrison that the growth that Williams needed could not be achieved in tiny Turks and Caicos, as a combination of things was lacking, including competition, and emphasis on the sport by those at the level of the political administration.

In addition, Harrison was getting homesick and longing to be closer to the action when football and athletics activities were being held in Jamaica.

"Every time it comes down to Manning Cup, daCosta Cup and Champs I would feel sick. I was really not getting a chance to really do what I love. My son would call me and feed me information about these events and that only made a bad situation worse.

"I started to do some more work with Delano and I realised that we weren't going anywhere as far as the sport was concerned in Turks and I said to myself that my passion was going to die here. That was when I decided that I would return to Jamaica.

"One morning at devotion the principal announced that I was leaving and Delano came crying in the staff room, saying 'you introduced me to this thing and you're leaving me, Sir, that's not fair'.

"I said OK Delano, I will take you with me, and he said 'Sir, are you serious'? I said yes, and that's when he stopped crying," Harrison revealed.

With the blessing of his wife, Harrison began the process of organising himself to leave and simultaneously arranging for Williams's transfer.

The challenge of convincing Williams's Haitian-born mother to have her son relocate to Jamaica for high school was a monumental one.

"The problem was to convince his parents, particularly his mother, because they saw Jamaica as a place filled with crime and violence...that's what was sold to them," Harrison went on.

"Delano is part of a twin. He has a sister and the mother said there is no way that he is leaving and he is not going to leave Ashley, so he's not going.

"I talked with the principal and he tried to convince the mother and she still said no. I went to the minister of sports, told him I was leaving, that Delano is a fine talent, and while I was not in a position to finance him in Jamaica, I would keep him at my home, coach him and whenever the Turks and Caicos were ready to compete at Carifta, I would ensure that he is ready, and the minister said 'Neil, that sounds like a good idea,' and then proposed to give him a scholarship.

"I called Mr (Brandford) Gayle, who was the principal at Munro to make plans, but during all this, Delano's mother was still giving me a hard time, because to her, Jamaica was too violent.

"Time was running out, I had purchased my ticket and ready to leave Turks and Caicos. I had a hard time leaving, because the school didn't want me to go, but I told them that my passion was dying, so it wouldn't make much of a difference.

"The minister of sports and some of the influential people in the community still tried talking to Delano's parents, but still, it was tough.

"I wrote down my information and left with his mother, telling her she had my blessing and if she changed her mind she could give me a call," Harrison stated.

Like divine intervention, dangerous Hurricane Ike seriously damaged some sections, and destroyed other areas of the Turks and Caicos Islands in 2008. Delano's house and school were not spared, as they too were battered.

The young athlete, now without his athletics coach, had not only experienced his first hurricane, but saw the havoc wreaked by the natural disaster as a sign that he should venture abroad.

"Delano didn't like what was happening and he said to his mother, 'you see, God is showing you a sign, I need to be in Jamaica' and he continued to bother his mother and two weeks after when all the utilities were restored I got a call and she said, 'Mr Harrison, I have changed my mind, are you still willing to take Delano?' and I said Sure and a week later, Brando Hayden, the team manager, was on his way to the airport to pick up Delano, and the rest is history -- he became a world junior champion," said Harrison, reliving the feat of Barcelona, Spain, in 2012, when Williams beat the world in the 200 metres.

The other achievements of the Racers Track Club man include gold in the 200 metres at the Carifta Games in 2011 and 2012 in Hamilton, Bermuda, and Montego Bay, Jamaica, respectively.

He also won bronze in the same event at the 2009 Carifta Games in Vieux Fort, St Lucia.

Williams's best times over 100 metres is 10.28 seconds, while for the 200 metres it is 20.27, both achieved in March of 2013.

Although not consistent over the distance, he has a 400 metres personal best of 47.81 seconds.

Seen as a strong contender for Britain's Olympic team for the 2016 games in Brazil, Williams is already well on target to better his 200-metre fifth-place finish at Britain's Olympic trials in 2012.

For his part, Harrison is only too anxious to see his charge up the ante from dominating juniors to conquering seniors.

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