“I decided to give it one last go when track and field began getting rid of cheaters in my event,” Trinidad and Tobago women’s shot put champion, Cleopatra Borel, told Wired868. “I finished outside of the finals in London [at the 2012 Olympic Games]. I was the first person outside of the finals but two of the medalists [initial gold medalist Nadzeya Ostapchuk (Belarus) and Evgeniia Kolodjo (Russia)] have since tested positive for steroid use.
“I felt like I needed better closure. That would be so difficult to live with, knowing I should [have been] in the [Olympic] finals but someone cheated and took that away from me.”
Cleopatra Borel, 37, has some unfinished business at the Olympics. The Rio 2016 Olympic Games will represent her fourth appearance at the world’s most popular sporting event.
The Mayaro-bred athlete, then 25 years old, threw a national record 18.90 metres at her first Games in Athens 2004 to get to the finals where she finished 10th with 18.35. But her throws at 17.96 and 18.36 in Beijing and London were not quite good enough to put her in medal contention. Although, in London, it should have been.
For the first time in her career, Borel, who was previously based in south east Virginia, prepared for the Olympics in Trinidad. The four-time Trinidad and Tobago and TTOC Sportswoman of the Year told Wired868 all about it:
Wired868: So how are your 2016 Olympic preparations?
Cleopatra Borel: It is a lot busy. There is so much stuff to do with all the media [interviews] and all the events and so on that go along with the Olympics and you still have to stay focused on your training. But it is very exciting…
In the past three Olympics that I represented Trinidad and Tobago, I was based [between Maryland and Virginia]. But now that I am here, I can really get the vibe and see how excited everyone is, [like when] school children come to [my training sessions at the Hasely Crawford Stadium] stadium just to say ‘hi’. There are so many people backing the team and I am really in touch with that this time. So it is great.
[In the United States, the press there would explain that] someone who trains here is going to the Olympics but she won’t represent the US. But here it is like ‘this is our girl and we are behind you’. So it is really different.
Wired868: Can the attention be distracting sometimes?
Borel: For me, it is something I appreciate because it just gives you that extra edge, that little push to keep going. And it lets me know that what I am doing is more than just throwing an iron ball around, which can sometimes seem silly. It’s how you can make people feel and how you can inspire people to be [at] their best. So it is great.
Wired868: What is your life like off the field? How is it different to normal folk?
Borel: I don’t know if it is different for anyone who wants to be their best. Every decision I make is related somehow to track and field. So for example, on the weekends instead of going out on a Saturday night, I will choose to sleep. Or instead of eating junk food, I will choose to cook for myself. So it’s a lifestyle. For me it is easy because once I make a commitment to something, I’m all in. I’m not a halfway type of person.
Wired868: What is your best dish? And how do you treat yourself?
Borel: I make a really good salad with so much stuff in it. I really enjoy that. I really enjoy a salad with grilled fish in it. Once I have time to prepare that, it’s [all] good [with the world]… When I treat myself, I go to St James for ice cream. (Laughs). That’s my favourite, better than all the international brands. I don’t really love ice cream outside of Trinidad. I love our local ice cream. That’s how I treat myself.
Wired868: What part of Trinidad and Tobago do you identify with the most?
Borel: Mayaro! ‘M’ in the house! (Laughs). Yes, I am from Mayaro [and] my entire family is from Mayaro… I went to Mayaro Government, [then] Mayaro Composite, then I went to St Stephen’s [College] in Princes Town. But now I reside in Woodbrook, which is close to the stadium [and] is a really nice community as well. I have really good neighbours.
Photo: Trinidad and Tobago shot putter Cleopatra Borel prepares to throw.
(Courtesy Sport Archives TT)
Wired868: What is the difference between Woodbrook and Mayaro?
Borel: If I lived in Woodbrook when I was younger, I probably would not have survived my youth! (Laughs). But it’s nice because I really enjoy playing mas. So I could train in the morning and then go home and then go out for Carnival. So that’s the best part of being in Woodbrook. But I don’t really go out much, because our training is so intense that when I have time to rest I like to sleep!
So I’m in Woodbrook [and] I can hear all the bacchanal going on but I don’t really participate that much.
Wired868: What was life like when you grew up in Mayaro?
Borel: Everyone in my family participated in sport to some extent. My dad [Raymond Borel] actually threw shot put, javelin and discus at QRC. My sister, Natasha, also competed. My younger brother, Ojai, was into football and tennis heavily. My younger sister, Thandi, was into track and field. And my mom Marcelle—everyone called her ‘Betty’—was into track and field. So my family was based around sport.
Because my dad managed football teams like Mayaro United—Peter Alfred was on the team at that time—we were always travelling with his teams and supporting the players, washing the uniforms and hanging them out. That sort of stuff.
Wired868: How have you dealt with the passing of your dad [who died in August 2013]?
Borel: We deal with it on a daily basis. It is unlike anything we have ever experienced because it was always the six of us and now we just miss him tremendously. And we reminisce about him a lot.
I had a great relationship with my dad. When I became an athlete full-time, I think he was very proud of that. I think he always wanted an athlete and perhaps he thought my brother would have done that for him. But I was able to give him that athlete that he was looking for in the family. And I know he was extremely proud because he would always attend my events. And not just track meets but FCB [Sportsman and Sportswoman of the Year] Awards.
It was tough to get my dad to dress up and for him to willingly put on a nice shirt and clothes and come out for so many events [and] even represent me when I wasn’t present. It was great. I never got him to actually go on stage and accept an award for me but I think that is as close as we could have gotten him. (Smiles).
Wired868: What pushes you to keep going and performing at this elite level?
Borel: I decided to give it one last go when track and field began getting rid of cheaters in my event. I finished outside of the finals in London [at the 2012 Olympic Games]. I was the first person outside of the finals but two of the medalists [initial gold medalist Nadzeya Ostapchuk (Belarus) and Evgeniia Kolodjo (Russia)] have since tested positive for steroid use.
I felt like I needed better closure. That would be so difficult to live with, knowing I should [have been] in the [Olympic] finals but someone cheated and took that away from me. It would have been tough.
So when my coach approached me about coming back to Trinidad and training here, once I saw that opportunity I decided to take it. With all those things combined, I felt like I needed a better end to my story and not have it be Cleo went to the Olympics and two people doped and [it cost me my big shot]…
I just needed a better end to my story at that time. But now I am really happy that I went back and I continued training because the past four years have been like the best years of my track and field career. And I feel it is because I did it here. I did it at home for the first time.
Wired868: What would you say is your best moment representing Trinidad and Tobago?
Borel: [There are] so many but I am really proud of the performance I had this year in Portland where I finished fourth in the [IAAF] World Indoors because it was really tough. I was actually in the emergency room the night before the competition [with an enraged abscess] and I was able to go out there and get my best finish at a Worlds [competition]. I am really proud of that. I barely slept the night before [the competition].
(Borel was in the eighth place for the first four rounds before her throw of 18.38 in her fifth round lifted her to fourth place).
Wired868: What is the ratio between mental strength, physical strength and technique that goes into a champion shot putter?
Borel: I think in training it is about the physical strength to execute and the mental strength to keep going. In competition, it is a lot about the mental strength to keep calm and to execute while under pressure.
Wired868: What is the difference between Cleo now and the young Cleo who headed to Athens for her first Olympics?
Borel: You know many things have changed and many things have stayed the same. I think the biggest change is how I handle stress and pressure. Before my first Olympics, I was just a stress ball and was running around crazy and just trying to do everything everywhere at all times.
Wired868: Can you give an example?
Borel: Before my first Olympics, I lived in south east Virginia. So to get my visa to go to the Olympics, I take a bus from Virginia to New York which took many, many hours, then I fly to Trinidad and upon landing in Trinidad, I go to my sister’s house, take a shower and I go directly to the Embassy. And I am having issues at the Embassy and I am stressing and I am ready to pull my hair out and I’m thinking I’m not going to go to the Olympics because of a visa! This is terrible! And I’m just completely melting down.
Today I can handle a situation like that much better. I would never put myself in a position where I am taking buses to New York to catch a plane to Trinidad. I would never do that to myself currently. But, at the time, that is what my resources permitted so I did whatever was necessary to get the job done.
Wired868: What is your biggest challenge now?
Borel: We still have a lot of challenges but right now I would say my biggest challenge is to stay healthy. [And] to make sure that I don’t do anything that can hurt my chance of being physically well for the next couple weeks. From something as simple as catching a cold. Or Zika. Or even dengue or yellow fever.
You have to protect yourself from mosquitos. Or if there is something in the gym that could potentially lead to an injury. I am always weighing my options [and asking myself]: ‘Do I need to do this? Is the risk worth the reward?’
So staying healthy and calm is really the name of the game right now.
Wired868: Are Olympic athletes worried about Zika?
Borel: It is a worry. There is typically a baby boom after the Olympics among athletes for obvious reasons. (Laughs). To be honest, some female athletes will try to conceive before the Games and that is strategic so you can get back in there as quickly as possible and there is some hormonal [advantage] as well. We had a woman win the gold medal in the javelin while [being at least three months pregnant]. I don’t think that is something that people are really going to feel comfortable doing this year…
So it is scary in some ways but after you’ve committed yourself to a goal for four or even 12 years, it is really tough to say: ‘I’m not going to compete in Rio’. So it is tough on us.
Wired868: What is the secret behind your success? What lifts you above thousands of shot putters all over the world?
Borel: I think it is because, coming from Mayaro, I’m strong. That is just how we are in Mayaro. (Smiles). But additionally I didn’t have this opportunity handed to me. I really had to fight for my chance to throw. And I think because of that, I appreciate it so much…
I had always wanted to compete in the shot put. But in primary school, I was told I was too young [and] in secondary school we had no coaches. So I actually gave up on my dream to be a track and field athlete. And when I migrated to the US for university, I saw a small chance and I took it. That’s what I mean when I say my fight to throw. To this day, there is no facility [and] no ‘circle’ in Mayaro where I can go [and practice] and stay with my mom and throw there. So this is something that I appreciate because it didn’t come easily to me.
Wired868: So you did not go to the US on a sport scholarship?
Borel: No. I went to university to study physical therapy and that didn’t happen. I did undergraduate work to become a physical therapist and I was going to go on but I had to choose between that and being a professional athlete because physical therapy school is full time and very intense. So I chose to be an athlete instead.
Wired868: Do you plan to go back to physical therapy?
Borel: No. I would like to go into sport administration. I got my Masters degree in health promotion as well and that is what I would like to do, wellness programs and that sort of stuff.
Wired868: Why sport administration? Do you see a special need there?
Borel: Ahmm, I think as an athlete I have a certain set of skills. (Laughs). And a certain experience that I believe will be best served in an administrative capacity to make life easier and better for our future athletes.
I don’t think, ten years from now, the issues that I’m facing should be the issues that those athletes are facing. So I would like to go back and make things better, easier and make our programmes here in Trinidad and Tobago stronger.
Wired868: What would be first on your agenda?
Borel: I think we should have a unified system and that is because I like systems… I like to be plugged into a formula and work it to the end and know what I am going to have. And I know with human beings it doesn’t [always] happen like that. But if you have a system then your outcome is more predictable.
And I think if our athletes had a system, like a culture, something that they knew this is what you do to get to this point and, when we get to this point, X, Y and Z happens, I think we will have more success that way.
Wired868: What do you see as your legacy as an athlete? And do you have any closing words for Trinidad and Tobago?
Borel: I see myself as having been consistently good for a long time. I have had the Olympic standard since 2004 and I have maintained it for that entire time. And I think that history is going to realise, at some point in time, how—I try to be humble—but how incredible that is. (Laughs).
You know to maintain a high standard like that for such a long period of time is an achievement. Keshorn [Walcott] won the Olympics and that is something that is great and tangible and easy to identify. And it is a little more difficult to realise how difficult consistency is over time. So I am not worried with my legacy. I am quite pleased with it.
For the public, I would like to say thanks to everyone who supports us. Us athletes appreciate all the support we get from the public. It has been tremendous. We are going to do our best to make you proud!
by Lasana Liburd