Beating the odds!

Beating the odds!

Student-athlete Niketa Coombs overcomes witnessing brutal murder of stepdad to post 2 bachelors, 2 masters degrees

BY PAUL A REID
Observer writer
reidp@jamaicaobserver.com

Saturday, July 11, 2020

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Witnessing a traumatic event at any stage is enough to have a long-lasting negative effect on anyone, but if the person were a teenager at a pivotal stage of his or her life, then it could be disastrous and cause permanent damage.

Studies have shown that teens who have been exposed to trauma have often had their emotional and intellectual development stunted, causing antisocial behaviour and even worse.

There are those, however, like former high school track start Niketa Coombs who has managed to beat the odds and has turned around and used her wounds and hurt to help others in similar situations.

Coombs, who is less than a year from graduating, and was just recently conferred with her doctorate in psychology from the University of Missouri, was about 14 or 15 years old and a promising student athlete at St Andrew High School for Girls when she witnessed her step-father's brutal murder in Bull Bay, St Andrew.

They were at home at about 7:00 pm, she recalled in an interview with the Jamaica Observer, when four men kicked in their door and shot her stepfather 11 times.

Instead of running, the feisty teenager, who was in close proximity, said she attacked the gunmen “and even tried to fight them off” and was very lucky to escape with her life and no injuries.

The scars were internal, however, as she recalled that even though she relocated to the Allman Town area by Heroes Circle until leaving for college, “it was certainly traumatising and I was angry at the world for a long time; extremely aggressive; I was unable to be social for a while,” she said.

“I still have certain behaviours that I developed as coping skills [obsessive-compulsive disorder-type behaviours] and I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] and attention deficit disorder [ADD].”

Even now, years later, she says she still has issues. “I have a really hard time with loud, banging noises because it triggers me. I don't like when anyone knocks my door, it is still a trigger to this day. I prefer a doorbell or 'I'm outside' text,” she said.

Therapy followed years after the incident, and maybe as a coping mechanism she says, “My family doesn't really talk about it; mental health is not normalised in my family,” but if there were any positives, she said, “I think this incident was life-changing and played a pivotal role in my career choice, research interest and charity work.”

Coombs, who would compete for St Andrew High from grade seven through 13, went to high school with some 'track-and-field pedigree', saying, “I have been competing in track since I was able to walk properly — basic school days” and dominated at Bridgeview Basic School and St Benedict's Primary School, both in the Bull Bay area, but maybe due to the community-based violence she faced, described her high school performance as “underwhelming”.

She told a story of being about five or six years old when her mother “got in an argument with my school because they would give me my awards after sports day so that it would not be so evident that I won them all - sounds ridiculous, but true story”.

The athletics genes are not restricted, however, as her sister, former Vere Technical High School sprinter Rene Medley was, this past track and field season, named US Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) Women's Division Two Indoors Track Athlete of the Year, after her successful senior season at Lincoln University in Missouri, USA, and was a two-time All-American in the 60m and 200m.

Coombs ran the full gamut of competition while at St Andrew, however, representing the school at the Inter-secondary Schools Sports Association Girls' Championships, Gibson Relays, Penn Relays and all the local meets competing in the 200m, 400m, 400m hurdles and the 4x400m relay, but said she could have done better. “I definitely did not reach my best potential during my high school years and I was mostly disappointed athletically. I also experienced a lot of trauma and community-based violence during my high school years, which I am sure was a contributing factor to my decline.”

Nothing could affect her performance in the classroom, however, even from primary school where she was involved in the Scripps Howard Spelling Bee, writing and maths competitions, as well as being a part of the Schools Challenge Quiz Team at St Andrew High.

Coombs passed nine subjects at the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) level, did well at the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination (CAPE) level and scored high in the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and in college maintained a 4.0 grade point average all the way through graduate school, and won major awards at all the colleges she attended, making dean's lists, earning academic funding and scholarships along the way.

Her college academic career has been nothing short of spectacular with two bachelor of science (BSc) degrees and two masters so far. Her first stop in college was at Division Two University of Mary between 2008 and 2012 where she earned a Bachelor of Science in Exercise Science, then it was on to Lincoln University for two years during which time she added a second BSc, this time in health and wellness.

Between 2014 and 2016 she was at Central Methodist University where she completed her master of education and then added a masters in psychology at the University of Missouri last year and is on course to graduate with her PhD in May 2021.

The areas of research for her PhD are Social Justice in Education and Anti-racist Systemic Changes in Education, all this while organising three personal charities each year — Diversity Pledge which raises funds for books written by black authors that are donated to students and schools to improve diversity in literature, a mentoring programme and raising money for low-income schools and students back home in Jamaica.

It wasn't all peaches and cream after she left Jamaica as she admitted to having “lost my love for the sport in high school, especially because I was so used to being at the top and it seemed like I was stuck,” she said, but fortunately, “I regained my confidence in college at the University of Mary — mostly because I had a coach that believed in me more than I believed in myself and was very intentional about making sure I knew the power I had.”

Coombs said a negative state of mind caused some of her issues. “I think sometimes when you grow up poor, your dreams are limited due to your resources and finances…can't afford to xyz,” but said getting out of the environment helped her. “It is liberating to be out in the world and be introduced to a new school of thought that focuses on your talents and goals, not so much your background.”

Coombs credits Mike Thorson, her coach at the University of Mary, whom she says “was and continues to be one of the most important/influential people in my life. He was a coach, a mentor, a father, a confidant and the list goes on. He taught me how to have a healthy sense of self and work hard for what I want regardless of how big those dreams and goals might seem…“Dream big, you'll grow into them.”

She left Jamaica as an intermediate hurdler but an injury in her first year, a torn posterior cruciate ligament (PCL), the strongest ligament, or band of tissue in the knee, which she was told that she would have only a 50-50 chance of competing again was a setback but she opted not to undergo the knife and instead “spent that summer doing intense rehab and I was able to continue competing”.

She developed from what she called “a very average college athlete barely breaking a minute in the 400m and 27 seconds in the 200m”, and said coach Thorson “turned me into a 53-54 seconds 400m runner and a 24-second 200m runner, after what was supposed to be a career-ending injury”.

In her four years at University of Mary she racked up five NCAA All-American awards, NCAA All-Academic and “more MVP, All Conference, Athlete of the Meet than I can remember”, even while battling severe asthma. “I remember my coach would always have one of my inhalers at the finish line waiting on me. I also had a lot of anxiety competing and he would always say 'PMA' as I set up my blocks — positive mental attitude. Something that I have held tight over the years, even post competition.”

Coombs says she will always be indebted to Thorson. “I don't think there are enough words and thank-yous that could do justice. He took a very broken teenager and turned me into a warrior. It was almost like I lost myself in high school and he found me. That was when the healing began. All that I am and hope to be, I owe to those who believed in me, especially Coach Thorson.”

Coombs is one of the rare student athletes who is able to balance academics and track and field in a demanding environment such as the NCAA, telling the Observer, “Without trying to sound like a brag, I actually had a relatively easy time balancing school and track. I was lucky enough to be good at both, so they complemented each other really well. I am extremely competitive, so I had to do well at both, there was no other way, that was the standard I set for myself.

“Also, when you grew up with very little, you make the best of every opportunity no matter what it takes. With that said, my struggles were not academic or athletic in college, they were socio-emotional. I was learning to cope with PTSD, with depression and anxiety, coping and acknowledging buried trauma, etc. Thankfully, track was a great outlet.”

Her biggest struggles in her post-grad studies, she says, are basically the workload associated with her field of studies, “other than the workload since you have classes, practicum hours, research expectations, writing, publications, presentations, etc. I was fully funded, I transferred PhD programmes to find an advisor with similar research interest and my current advisor Dr Wendy Reinke is a total gem — more supportive than I could have imagined.

“I also have a great relationship with other academics and admin at my university like the UM System President and Members of the Board of Curators — their support for my work has been unwavering. I think building genuine relationships with other students have been challenging. I'd say difference in culture played a role but there were also some personality clashes in the mix.”

Now 30, Coombs sets her bars very high. “I dream big and I get things done, I don't accept nos or cannots. I have realised that sometimes people see the end product and think it was given to me because they fail to realise the work that was put in behind the scenes. Additionally, I have noticed that in grad school most people are focused on selling a certain persona in order to be liked and I take pride in being my true self 100 per cent of the time. I think of that transparency as a superpower, however, not everyone is able to handle that. I have no interest in acting a certain way to please anyone, I refuse to water down my blackness or dilute my personality to please anyone's fragility. What you see is what you get, take it or leave it. Constantly filtering or wearing a mask sounds extremely draining.”

With all she has been through and achieved in the last eight years along her academic journey, Coombs can still find pros and cons as to whether she would put herself through all that again if she should use hindsight. “On one hand, I think life has really challenged me from a very young age where I have to spend a lot of time healing from my childhood and teen years, so I am tempted to say no,” she told the Observer.

“On the other hand, life has afforded me so many extraordinary talents and opportunities. I am in a position where I can truly make a difference and live with purpose and intentionality, so I'd say yes.”

Maybe there are things she would change, though. “Maybe less time in school and less degrees? I'm not sure. I can imagine I have had pivotal experiences at each of those points in my life that adds to who I am today and I really like the progress I've made, especially on the inside. It is rewarding to be motivated by things that don't even affect you personally. To have a genuine interest and passion to leave the world better than you found it and impact lives in a positive way. I couldn't ask for more honestly.”


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