“It’s the passion that matters”

Cherelle Thompson shows off her strokes during a training session at the National Aquatic Centre, Couva on Thursday. - Marvin Hamilton
Cherelle Thompson shows off her strokes during a training session at the National Aquatic Centre, Couva on Thursday. - Marvin Hamilton

When TT swimmer Cherelle Thompson is about to dive into the water, she begins to focus. Feelings of joy, gratitude, and thankfulness for being able to represent her country consume her. To her – JUMP stands for Jesus Undertake My Plan. And with that, competition mode activates and she prepares to give her best effort.

This is the attitude the 27-year-old is planning on taking all the way to the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan.

She achieved an Olympic B qualifying time 25.39 seconds at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Knoxville, Tennessee, on January 19 in the women’s 50-metre freestyle.

In November 2019, she smashed former Olympian, Siobhan Cropper’s 19-year 50m short course freestyle record of 25.32 seconds, clocking 24.89 at the National Open Short Course Swimming Championships. She then displayed another record-breaking showing in December, breaking Cropper’s 22-year TT long course record (25.89), with a time of 25.52.

Thompson began swimming at age four at the Princes Town Open Bible Kindergarten. She had a coach she called Uncle Neil and said she really enjoyed being in the water. But it was only after attending a summer training programme in the US not long after that her interest in competitive swimming began.

“The instructor encouraged my parents to get me into a swim club. They said I had good potential in the sport.”

She then joined a now-defunct swim club named Sting Ray Swim Club based in San Fernando that was initially headed by Wendell Lyons. Edmund Pouchet of the north-based Blue Dolphin Swim Club then took over.

She said she began seeing great improvements under Pouchet’s guidance. She also made the national team at age 12, which she recalls being very surprised about.

“I know I was excited but more shocked. I was not aware of how qualifying times worked, etcetera, so it came as a surprise to make the team. “Then, later on, I learned my times were good enough to go to a higher level of competition.”

She attended St Gabriel’s Roman Catholic Primary School and St Stephen’s College, representing both schools as local swim meets.

Cherelle Thompson, during a training
session on Thursday, at the National Aquatic Centre, Couva. - Marvin Hamilton

She has also represented TT at the Central American and Caribbean Games, Commonwealth Games, FINA World Championships and the Pan American Games.

Asked if it ever became difficult to balance school work and swimming, she admitted that nearing CSEC examinations, she had to take some time off from the sport to focus on school.

“It started to affect my grades, but it wasn’t due to a lack of understanding. I was just exhausted all the time.

“But being in the sport helped with discipline. I studied during lunch, tried to read on my way to training.”

She studied kinesiology at the University of Tennessee in the US, with a minor in nutrition. She began in 2012 and graduated in 2016.

Kinesiology is the study of human (physical) movement/motion. Initially, she wanted to study nursing but she said the class times were not matching up well with her schedule.

“I went to orientation and realised how applicable it (kinesiology) was to my sport and movement and mechanics, and it was also a pre-med course.” In 2016, she also made the Olympic B qualification but it was not enough to secure a spot in the games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She needed an A qualifying time.

She told Newsday she gave up on swimming after that, and it took a lot of motivation from her current coach Stephen Mendoza and some inspirational words from TT Olympic Committee (TTOC) president Brian Lewis. “I was done. I posted on social media saying I was thankful for the experiences but I was done.

“But being invited to the (First Citizens) sports awards where I was listening to Mr Lewis give his feature presentation and he was talking about leaving a legacy for the next generation, and I started to think about how me quitting would speak to swimmers who were looking on and had the same aspirations.”

She said Mendoza asked her if the dream of competing in the Olympic was still there. When she said yes, he told her ‘Let’s go for it.’

“He was an integral part in getting me back into the water and trying again.”

She said she was shocked she was able to achieve the Olympic B qualification this year as her times in races just before the qualifier were quite slow. She said it feels good having crossed that hurdle, but there is still work to be done.

Although no other female athlete has achieved any 2020 Olympic qualification this far, Thompson wants to further secure her spot by attaining an Olympic A qualification. But the swimmer told Newsday she is not sure she will continue with the profession after this year’s Olympics, and plans to begin her degree in medicine at the University of West Indies, St Augustine, from September. She said Tokyo 2020 is her last “hurrah”. She was due to begin last year but took a year off to focus on swimming.

“I met with the department heads and we agreed I should focus on one thing at a time. And I respect the demands of the sport and med school.”

Because of her desire to give back to her country, she founded Aqua Sense Swim School in April 2019, where she teaches infants how to swim. She is a certified Infant Aquatics instructor.

She said it has been going well and that it’s always amazing to see the progress of the children.

“I learned at a young age so I wanted to help others do the same.”

She said to be successful in sports, you must be passionate about what you do in addition to training and discipline.

“To get past inevitable obstacles and challenges in a sporting career, it’s the passion that matters.” She said despite being uncertain about continuing swimming, she would try to get involved in other sports for leisure. She enjoys football, basketball and volleyball.

She said she is thankful that sports has the power to bring people together, and plans to do her best when she represents TT in Tokyo.


"“It’s the passion that matters”"

More in this section