SAMANTHA SHUKLA knows what it takes to be a winner. Only days ago, she was the first local woman to cross the finish line at the University of the West Indies’ (UWI) SPEC International Half Marathon.
She was the second woman to finish the race, clocking a personal best of one hour, 21 minutes and 56 seconds (1:21:56) on October 28.
In May, she won the women’s category in the Sea to Sea marathon in Tobago, finishing 14th overall. In September, she won the Scotiabank Women Against Breast Cancer 5K title for the third year running.
Not only is she accomplished on the field she is also accomplished off it. Shukla holds a BA in Psychology with a minor in Sport Management from Wichita State University, Kansas. The former Success Laventille Secondary School student did her A-Levels at St Joseph’s Convent, Port of Spain. She is currently pursuing a certificate in the Art and Science of Coaching at the UWI, St Augustine.
The national athlete knows exactly what it takes to win, she also knows that a major part of winning is mental and care for one’s mental health.
That is why she has made the call for TT to have more sports psychologists. Days before participating in the UWI SPEC race, she said at Newsday’s Port of Spain office, “We need more sport psychologists being there for our athletes. The mental side of being an athlete is very important. It is not just about the physical. It is more about the mental than physical, because you can be physically prepared, but if you’re not on your game, mentally, it would never work.”
From her own experience she knows a lot of athletes face mental issues.
“We have a culture when we only support when they are doing well. We have a lot of talented athletes that do well, but it is not smooth when you’re an athlete. There are ups and downs, and during the down time, you want to know that there are people supporting you to get back up,” the Beetham Gardens resident said.
It is also from her own personal experience that she knows the importance of mental well-being.
In her teenage years, Shukla often felt “anxious, sad, confused, unworthy, at times.” These feelings morphed from a turbulent childhood and ran well into her teenage years, until she was 19-20, she said.
At 15-18, these feelings were acutely intense, prompting her then coach, Phillip Marcelle, to get psychological help for Shukla.
Now 27, she remembers when her coach discovered her.
“We had a sports day and I won every single event at Success RC Primary School (Laventille). That was the first time I got a trophy. I won the victrix ludorum (overall champion) trophy in standard two.” While Marcelle was a teacher and then principal at the school, he did not teach Shukla.
At the time, winning made Shukla (who described herself as being a loner) “powerful.”
“It made me feel special,” she said with depth, knowing the exact meaning and feeling of those words.
“I was always a high-performing student. Then I discovered I had athletic ability. And with that, as I did well in school and running, I saw that people were proud. I made them happy when I did well.
“So that is something I always wanted to do, make people smile and feel proud about me. Like that was my purpose. It was a way of getting love.”
When she did well, people would call and say, “Good job.”
“Other than that, everybody was about their own business, no one cared about what was going on with you.”
At 15-16 her high performance began to waver.
“School started getting very tough. It was tough to balance being the number one student and the number one athlete. So I started doing really bad in school, like from form four. Also in athletics, I started doing poorly. I was not number one anymore. So I started coming second and third and things like that.”
It was then, Shukla said, that Marcelle got her psychological help.
She described the 2006 CARIFTA games as one of her “emptiest” moments.
It was my first CARIFTA, my first big international competition. I had made Caribbean Union of Teachers when I was 13, but I placed second and third. I went there and I was number one in the 1500 metres race at the time. Nobody in TT could have touched me.
“Then I went out there in Guadeloupe and I placed sixth. And I felt like nothing. Nobody. I felt really, really low. I felt suicidal. After placing sixth, I couldn’t eat. I was staying in. I was thinking about how I was going to end my life. I was just in the hotel room not wanting to live any more.”
Other athletes, she said, would come into the room to get her. Had it not been for them, Shukla said, she “might not have been here.”
“I wanted to punish myself for not doing well.
“Then I started getting over it. Laugh about certain things, go outside, be around other teammates and it was better.”
But still, “That was like a really hard moment for me. That was the first emptiest moment I could recall, wanting to take my own life.”
It was after that Guadeloupe incident that Marcelle, whom she described as a father figure, helped her to see a psychologist. Shukla has never been clinically diagnosed with depression nor taken any medications for it. She saw the psychologist for about two years and that helped her to deal with her anxiety.
At that time in her life, “It was just like things upon things. Home situation, schoolwork dropping, feeling like you’re not that great any more in athletics. He decided on his own behalf that I needed to see someone and talk to someone.”
She also credits getting baptised and her faith in God for better mental health.
But she wants TT’s youth to listen to those who “call out greatness in them,” and also called on TT to support its athletes through their ups and downs. “We need to start backing our own throughout their lifetimes.”
She is now training to qualify for the Pan American Games in 2019 and one day hopes to be an Olympian.
It was her intent on October 28 to win the UWI SPEC International Half Marathon. She said then , with the broadest smile, “I put in work for this UWI and my plan is to go out and win this Sunday.”