Jermaine Gonzales: A Lesson in Perseverance
By Peter Forbes
Thursday, 20 January 2011
After receiving word last week that Jermaine Gonzales had just won the JAAA Golden Cleats track and field Male Athlete of the Year Award, my mind immediately went to the image of him laying on the track at the National Stadium injured and certainly dejected. The year was 2003 in April at the annual Boys and Girls Championships held at the National Stadium.
This moment would agonizingly become all too familiar to Gonzales over the subsequent six years, a period rife with injuries, disappointment and unrealized expectations. It was certainly an outcome that would not have been predicted by anyone following his development to that point.
Gonzales burst onto the scene in 2001 by winning the Class 2 400 meters at Champs. For good measure, he followed this performance by winning his first year in class 1, a not too common feat in the one lap event. Later that year, he claimed bronze in the World Junior Championships held before his home crowd in Kingston in a very quick personal best of 45.84, truly his seminal moment. One could certainly be forgiven for anointing him the future king of Jamaican quarter milers.
However, the moment for me that truly cemented the potential of this young man was not the Champs win in 2002 or the 45.84 personal best at the World Juniors in 2002. It was the National Scholastic Indoor Meet at the New York City Armory track in March of 2003, a meet little known outside of the US, featuring the best US high school athletes.
Gonzales competed in the 400 meters and finished a close second to the top US junior quarter miler Reginald Witherspoon who won in 46.11 to Gonzales' 46.15. Both athletes shattered the US national high school indoor record of 46.84, a record held by Philadelphia and Penn Relays legend William Reed, a man who would later run 45.17 in high school at 17 years of age. Gonzales' time at the Armory was faster than any Jamaican school boy had ever run at Champs.
Considering the track was an indoor 200 meter surface, generally unkind to those vertically blessed, and the fact that he had never before run indoors, is what made this accomplishment special, though possibly achieved at a price. Barely two weeks later at Champs, his world would come crashing to a halt in his pet event, as he lay on the track injured at the 300m turn, and watched his close friend Usain Bolt, like a runaway train, running away from the opposition on his way to a world class 45.35, obliterating the Champs record of 46.22 in the process.
I've often wondered how Gonzales felt watching his friend Bolt on that fateful day, stealing the spotlight and record that should have been his alone. Bolt of course would go on to transform and re-energize the world of track and field a mere 5 years later by breaking world records seemingly at will and with flair, while collecting World Athlete of the Year Awards, multiple endorsements and overall international acclaim.
The years to follow produced mixed results for Gonzales. When not injured, he was good enough to qualify for a few of the national senior teams primarily as a relay runner, but never really distinguished himself as a true threat to the top quarter milers of the world. Things began to change for Gonzales when, at the urging of Bolt, he joined the Racers Track Club led by Coach Glen Mills.
The year was 2008, and would prove critical to him resurrecting what had become a rather pedestrian international career. Mills just a few years earlier, was charged with guiding the prodigy Bolt, who himself had seen a few dark days following a stellar junior career.
In a July 25th 2010 Jamaica Observer article, Mills assessed the progress of Gonzales stating; "Before we think of running fast times we try to deal with the problem that is causing them not to perform, and so in his (Gonzales) first year we worked on him to develop his overall physical strength, his flexibility, improve his nutrition and hydration... all the things that we were given to assess (and) that we felt were not up to the mark," he explained.
(1) He further added that Gonzales suffered from a lot of cramps, which suggested problems with hydration and nutrition. After completing a full year of training under the tutelage of Mills, Gonzales qualified for the 2009 World Championships in Berlin. The results, though average at best, were pleasing to his coach as it laid the foundation for years to come. According to Mills; "They were not spectacular times, but the important thing was that for the first time in two or three years he was able to compete for the entire year. With that foundation laid to correct the majority of the problems, the foundation was laid for the next year that you see the result of now," he added.
(2). It all came together in 2010 as Gonzales broke the 13 year old national record held by Roxbert Martin stopping the clock at 44.40. Coincidence or pure serendipity, Bert Cameron joined Racers in 2009 as an assistant coach and mentor, and the rest as they say is history, at least for one year.
According to Mills, Cameron, who was awarded 2010 Coach of the Year, has been an invaluable addition to the coaching staff. "Bert brings to the table not only his coaching experience, but also experience as a quarter-miler and a World Champion and somebody like Gonzales who needed that kind of support benefits from that."
(3) In addition to the national record, Gonzales bettered the 45 second barrier a total of 7 times in 2010, bringing his total to 10 times below the mark for his career. To be clear, this is by no stretch the best year a Jamaican athlete has ever had, far from it. But to fully grasp and appreciate the year Gonzales had in 2010 while factoring the early struggles, a little history lesson is in order. Seven Jamaican quarter milers have eclipsed the 45 second barrier in the 400 meters 10 or more times, with Greg Haughton and Michael Blackwood leading the way with 25 and 23 times respectively.
Only Greg Haughton and Gonzales accomplished the feat 7 times in a single year, with Haughton doing it in 1995. In an event that has not produced the fast times that Jamaica's legacy would suggest with the dominance of Mckenley, Wint and Rhoden on full display 60 years ago, Gonzales offers a ray of hope.
I applaud Jermaine on an award well deserved. His experience, if nothing else, should serve as inspiration to any athlete who considers quitting in the face of adversity. They say the true measure of a man is how he responds in the face of adversity. He has responded quite well and I admire his tenacity and hard work, and wish him nothing but the very best going forward. Take a bow young man and keep up the good work.