By Patrick Green
The ultimate prize for any athlete is to have a gold medal swinging around their neck while their national anthem plays. Increase the pride and joy by 100% and that is the feeling you get if you are an Olympian. When national anthems play at the Olympics, athletes go through a range of motion. Some cry, some laugh, and others keep their dumbstruck faces, even hours after winning their event. But those emotions are for the winners. What about those who did not make it to the podium.
Alia Atkinson, by far is the most successful Jamaican and Caribbean swimmer. Her Olympics experience started in 2004 at age fifteen when she failed to make the semi-finals in neither the 50m freestyle nor 100m breaststroke. Four years later in Beijing, she switched to the 200m breaststroke and placed 25th overall after finishing second in her heat. Then came the London Olympics and with it, her best performance and joint best by any Caribbean swimmer. After a swimming run-off for the last spot in the 100m breaststroke finals, Alia missed the medal ceremony by a whisker with a time of 1:05.93 seconds, to 3rd place winner, Japan's Satomi Suzuki, who clocked 1:05.45 seconds. This performance by Alia equaled Janelle Atkinson's fourth place finish in the 400m Free Style at the Sydney games in 2000.
Outside of the Olympics, Alia is a superstar, setting and resetting nationals records. In 2014 she lit up the World Championship pool in Doha, clocking a world record 1:05.36 seconds to become the first black woman to ever win a world title. So with three Olympics under her belt, a world record, a hunger for victory and a nation on her shoulders, it was expected that her medal would be a formality in Rio. The swimmers in Rio had other ideas however and in one of her worse performance, Alia Atkinson finished a disbelieving 8th! The disappointment was evident on her face as she stood in the pool soaking in the 68.1 seconds that was just recorded in probably her last Olympics. By comparison, her time was slower than her slowest time of the meet - 66.72 seconds for second place in her heat and the 66.52 in her semi-finals. So much was the pain that Alia did not speak with the Jamaican press after her race and chose instead to use her social media account to tell her many fans, that it was "Not what I expected, but this is by far not the end. Thanks for your continuous support ..."
Andrew Phillips and Alia Atkinson
But even with this disappointment, Alia should not be so hard on herself. Losing is "disappointed, but it's not the end of the world," was how Andrew Phillips, the first Jamaican and Caribbean Olympian to reach a swimming finals puts it. Phillips placed sixth in 1984, swimming the 200 Individual Medley in a time of 2:05.60 seconds. "It is a bitter/sweet emotion because you have accomplished something that most people have never done but it is disappointing that you did not win or get a medal." Phillips who was ranked number three in March of 1984 was expected to medal, with the Olympics a mere four months from the time he held his highest ranking.
Phillips suggested like many other experts, that Alia's poor start led to her performance and the result. "I believe that Alia sat back in her block too long and panicked after realizing that her mishap was going to affect her result. At this stage, she could not find the speed nor the strength to take up a commanding position in the pool." Phillips should know because he had a similar starting problem in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Janelle Atkinson (no relation), the only other Jamaican swimmer to have gone as close to a medal as Alia, fully understands the disappointment. "I'm incredibly proud of my accomplishment but I'm still not sure how to handle it, particularly since the swimmer awarded the bronze failed a drug test months later and was given a suspension but got to keep her medal." Up to this moment, Janelle has not watched her race. "It honestly didn't hit me until 4 years (and 4 surgeries) later when I went to Athens and watched Veronica Campbell-Brown's presentation ceremony of the 200m. Since then it still kinda haunts me. I still have yet to watch my race."
Now the head swimming and diving coach at Fairfield University in Connecticut, Janelle believes that Alia "left the block late and was in a panic trying to catch up. By the time she caught up she got back into her normal stroke but paid for her panic (in) the last 25 meters and her technique and power faded."
We may not know for some time what exactly happened or how this performance affects Alia. But make no mistake about it, Jamaicans are fully behind her, holding her up and giving her a shoulder to lean on using social media. It doesn't matter which social media platform you visit, people all over are expressing how "proud" they are of her and how much of an "inspiration" she has been. One person wrote "You have had quite the year...thanks for inspiring little Jamaican girls (and big ones) to reach for everything. Proud cah done!!"
Another wrote, "You're an international hero to every woman of color, to every nation that inspires to send new athletes to the Olympics and you epitomize the characteristics of Jamaica's newest national hero."
While it is hard to do, the greatest swimmer that Jamaica and the Caribbean have ever seen must understand, that she was better than 36 other world class swimmers who never reached the finals and thousands who never made it to the Olympics. As Andrew Phillips said, "...it is not the end of the world."