Long jumper Tyra Gittens showed zero nerves on her Olympic debut on Saturday night (TT time), smiling, dancing and leaping 6.72 metres to advance to tonight's final (9.50pm).
Words of encouragement from her dad before competing might have calmed Gittens, who was quite charismatic amid the pressure on the world's biggest stage in Tokyo.
At the Olympic Stadium, the 23-year-old Texas A&M athlete progressed out of Group A. Although Gittens fell just short of the automatic qualifier mark of 6.75m, her distance was ninth best among the 12 advancing athletes.
Topping the finalists were Serbian Ivana Spanovic (7m), German Malaika Mihambo (6.98m) and American Brittney Reese (6.86m).
Speaking from Nashville, Tennessee on Sunday, Gittens’ father, Sterling, expressed delight with his daughter’s performance thus far.
Sterling, a gospel artiste, said no matter the result, Gittens has already made her family proud.
“This is a very great situation and it’s a serious honour. I told her (Tyra) on Saturday, in an attempt to take pressure off of her, that she has already honoured the family and met my personal standard by qualifying for the games.
“We’re not telling her to ‘go for gold’ or adding any more pressure on her. That must be a personal thing from her. Whether she gets a medal, she is known to be among the 12 best long jumpers in the world right now and that’s good for me,” he said.
What makes Gittens’ presence in the final extra special, Sterling said, is that she is really a multi-sport athlete focusing on long jump, high jump, javelin, shot put, 100m hurdles, 200m and 800m.
She made the Olympic standard (6.82m) for the long jump during a record-breaking, golden performance in the heptathlon at the South Eastern Conference Track and Field Championships.
At that same meet, Gittens fell agonisingly short of Olympic heptathlon qualification as she amassed 6,418 points – just two points shy.
“When all of those other long jumpers are practising for hours every day to hone their sport, she dedicates about an hour to long jump because she has six other events to master as well. To me, that makes her greater. I’m proud.”
On Saturday, Gittens alma mater, Ensworth High School, hosted a small viewing party in its conference room for her family, past teachers, friends and members of the community who all contributed to her development in one way or the other.
For the final on Monday night, Ensworth High School will host another viewing party, this time on the jumbotron in the school stadium.
Sterling said he and his wife, Debra, were warmed to see the level of community support.
“As mom and dad, we’re always nervous. I get really quiet when my daughter is performing. But it feels good that people noticed. It’s a community effort. It was refreshing to see those people who had a hand positively in her life, to see them enjoy it.”
Former national triple jumper and Olympian Ayanna Alexander-Laine hailed Gittens for her dedication and commitment to her craft. Alexander-Laine was the first TT woman to compete in the triple jump at the Summer Games in 2012. She placed 14th.
“I am very proud of her. She’s a phenomenal individual and athlete. It’s an amazing accomplishment for Tyra to be competing in the finals," she said.
“It’s great, on the heels of her performances from her collegiate career over the past season. She has overcome many adversities on the track to get this far.”
Alexander-Laine believes Gittens’ journey will be an exciting one and there are no limits to what she can do, having excelled at an individual event while doing multi-sport.
“She has real passion, drive and determination in competing. I believe that she will be successful at the next level. She has a lot in her and we will see what she has to offer over the coming years.
“I’m very confident that she has a bright future in the sport and whatever event she chooses to do. I am backing her 100 per cent – win, lose or draw. This is an accomplishment in itself.”
Alexander-Laine also sent well wishes to the entire Team TTO delegation who conquered many obstacles to get to this level, amid the pandemic.
TT's other longer jumper at the Olympics, Andwuelle Wright, unfortunately contracted covid19 and did not make his Olympic debut. Wright, 400m hurdler Sparkle McKnight and coach Wendell Williams all tested positive and are in isolation in a hotel.