‘Forever a trailblazer’
JAMAICA’S women have significantly added to the nation’s gold medal tally at the Olympic Games over the last two decades. However, Deon Hemmings-McCatty will always be remembered as the woman who changed the island’s fortunes at the Summer Games.
From a young age the St Ann native knew she wanted to be a professional athlete during her time at York Castle High and Vere Technical High in the 1980s. However, it wasn’t until she earned an American track scholarship to attend Central State University in Ohio that she truly honed her craft in the 400m hurdles.
“I was a sprint hurdler then, and they carried me to all these big meets with the top US sprint hurdlers and I always came last and I didn’t enjoy that — nobody wants to continue losing a race. So I saw this other Jamaican running the 400 hurdles and I asked my coach to try it,” Hemmings-McCatty told the Jamaica Observer.
“Can you imagine running it for the first time: You ran up to each hurdle, jump, and go again? I ran 63 seconds and everybody came over to me and was like, ‘This is amazing, running 63 and looking so terrible,’ so it motivated me and I decided I just wanted to focus on that,” she recalled.
Inspired by the likes of countrywoman Merlene Ottey, Hemmings-McCatty made steady improvements, including becoming national champion in 1991. A year later she achieved a lifelong dream by competing at the Barcelona Games.
“If you want to succeed in something you have to have something that motivates you — and mine was the role models I had like Merlene Ottey. You listen to them on the radio when you’re at home and it’s like ‘Oh my God, they’re going to the Olympics! I want to be like them.’ And there are other Jamaican athletes that I saw on the circuit or track meets.
“My first Olympics was an experience, and I made the final. For me, running in the final wasn’t as important as making the final. I was top eight in the world [so] I just went out there and enjoyed myself,” said Hemmings-McCatty.
Though 1992 was a learning experience she wanted to make the 1996 Games her winning year, especially after claiming silver at the Commonwealth Games in 1994 and bronze at the World Championships in 1995.
However, she thought about quitting in 1996 but, fortunately, stayed the course.
“Early in the season I was not doing very well and I’m like, ‘Lord, do I need to continue, yes or no?’ But things just turned around. I started training really well, the races in the last half were really good, and going into the Olympics I felt very confident so I just went for broke.”
She indeed went for broke as McCatty created history, becoming Jamaica’s first woman to win a gold medal at an Olympic Games. She beat Americans Kim Batten and Tonja Buford-Bailey and set an Olympic record of 52.82 seconds — a record that would stand for over 20 years.
“Going into the final, I’m happy I didn’t know I’d be the first [Jamaican] female to win gold because I thought Merlene had won, so I would have probably have put pressure on myself. I just went out there and I figured I worked really hard for this and I’m going to give it a 110 per cent, and I was so elated,” she said.
Reflecting on the accomplishment, the memories still evoke strong emotions.
“To know that all the persons who have supported throughout this time and to be able to carry my flag high, it was a historic moment for me. To know how hard I trained, to know all the things I went through to get here, to know that it was a drought for my country because the last [gold] medal we got was Donald Quarrie 20 years ago, so I was pretty overwhelmed by the experience. One of the things I saw when I did the victory lap was the amount of flags, the standing ovation, and people were waving around the stadium. Just to know that you are there and have done so well for such a small country, it is a wonderful feeling,” she said.
Hemmings-McCatty’s last Olympics in 2000 was also a success when she finished with two silver medals in the 400m hurdles and the women’s 4x400m.
Since 1996, 11 different women have won gold medals for Jamaica in both individual and relay events, including Melaine Walker who replicated her feat in 2008. Hemmings-McCatty is proud to have been able to pave the way.
“To set the pace for the younger ones to come and emulate, and you see what’s happening now where all our young ladies want to do well and so many have come out since then, both in the hurdles and other events. We have a lot of young women competing but our success is much greater because of persons like me; that’s one of the reasons I did so well because there were female role models that I looked up to. Now, you have Shelly, Melaine, Shericka, Elaine. I’m happy that as a trailblazer I could help them achieve their goals in track and field,” she said.
Expectations are high for Jamaica’s women heading into Paris 2024 and beyond, and Hemmings-McCatty is encouraging them to continue to break barriers.
“Just continue do what you’re doing. I set the pace, and I remember one day somewhere and I heard Shelly say people like me set the pace for them. Just continue to hold their head up high. Just continue to do well, continue to look at the role models, continue to raise the bar. Shelly, Elaine, Melaine, all of them have raised the bar so continue to do well so our younger generation can see and continue to emulate the good things we’re doing,” she encouraged.