“One of my first encounters with water was as a Tiny Mite at the YMCA when they put us in the deep end,” the national swim coach explains. She adds with a laugh, “I remember holding on to my friend, literally, as if I was holding for my life.” Swimming, and the life she held on for, would take her to Russia, Japan, Bahamas, Brazil, Santo Domingo, England, St. Croix, Greece, Jamaica and Suriname to name just a few.
Today, to say that Sharntelle McLean has conquered her fear of the water is an understatement in itself. She’s moved from fear to love, embracing her aquatic life first as a young, non-competitive swimmer following in her sister’s footsteps at Benny’s Swim World from 1989-1995, before moving to La Joya Torpedoes under the same coach, Ronald Corke, where she would first enter the competitive aspect of the sport.
She wasted no time in making her first national swim team (along with her sister) for the Goodwill Games in Suriname less than a year later, while she was a student at Mucurapo Junior Secondary School where her training routine started as early as 5am and was followed by more practice immediately after school (as she attended the morning shift), homework and a full training regimen in the evening; several times a week.
After her move to South East Port-of-Spain Secondary, she made her first higher level team for CCCAN in Medellin, Colombia but had also made the team for CARIFTA which was boycotted that year. By the time she pursued A-Levels, she credits the support of her friends and her family with helping her keep a sense of balance.
“My mom would encourage me to go out on the weekends as she believed in having that balanced approach to life. I had a good enough balance especially since I had a core group of friends, both from swimming and non-swimming areas. There were five of us, there’s still five of us and a handful few more made along the way,” she says with a smile, “and sometimes if I was travelling for competition they would keep the notes for me. Every so often if I fell asleep in class, they would have my back too.”
Moving on to South Carolina University to read for a degree in Accounting, Sharntelle went on to compete at the Division 1 Collegiate level, rubbing shoulders with World Record holders both in-training and in-competition, while also maintaining her place on the President and Dean’s lists and graduating Cum Laude with Honours. The highlight of her in-pool career, however, would be the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece.
“To be back at the very home of the Olympics, was unforgettable. I was thankful to be there to experience that. The competition aspect; there are no words to explain the feeling when you walk out on deck. I just zoned out the crowd and went into ‘blinders’ mode, but you can’t help but still take it all in. Then there’s the Village, very athlete friendly, all the food available to you, the games rooms, recreational facilities and more. It was also a very beautiful city to explore which we were able to do after the Games.”
Today, the former national swimmer is now a national coach and recently saw four swimmers move from her club to the University level and has been striving to impart her own unique ability to manage athletics and education on to those in her care. She brings the diverse coaching skills she garnered from coaches like Ronald Corke (who encouraged her to pursue coaching), Anil Roberts and the late Michael Lohberg, with whom she trained in preparation for both the 2004 Athens and the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Her students have also seen success at the recently concluded Goodwill Games and CCCAN and she was also able to dive right back into the pool and represent TT recently at home as she recalls, “Being a part of those winning teams, it’s fulfilling in its own right; seeing these students excel at life in and out of the pool and stay clear of the negativity that exists around them, that’s amazing. Being able to get back into the pool in front of my home crowd and compete (at our National Aquatic Centre); that topped the icing of the cake that is my career as a swimmer.”
Speaking of cake, Sharntelle also loves baking – breads, in particular, but also learned the tricks of homemade sponge cakes and marble cakes from her grandmother. She also loves hairdressing, something she points out she learned from a young age as she had her own ‘opinions’ on how her own hair should be styled. “My mother would kill me for saying that,” she says with a laugh.
Today, while great strides have been made in swimming nationally, she believes there is much more that can be done. “The Association is aiming to bring all aquatic sports under one umbrella, which is the start of creating an organised pool of talent that we can draw from and channel towards more elite training programmes. The difficulty today is the balance – something that I had to learn, coming from the ground up as a swimmer and also as a coach.
“We are dealing with children who are in extra lessons sometimes as much as four evenings a week, so where do we have time for other activities like swimming? Yes, parents want children to be educated and there is more pressure to perform but we really do have to bridge the gap between the two. Perhaps to show the value that sports brings to everyone and later on an elite training school for advanced athletes that combines the two would work?” she asks.
One thing is for sure – while it may take a village to raise a child, it surely takes a whole team to raise an Olympian.