Toppa Top 10: Ten Caribbean Athletes to Watch at the 2016 Olympics

Words by Tishanna Williams,  Marcha M. Johnson and Jesse Serwer

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The Summer Olympics kick off today in Rio, and once again the Caribbean will enjoy a prominent place in the proceedings. The marquee attraction of the entire Games is Usain Bolt, competing in his last Olympics ahead of his anticipated retirement in 2017. The field also includes returning medalists from Jamaica, Grenada, Trinidad and Cuba, and countless first-time hopefuls from the region. Here’s a look at a few of the competitors we’ll be tuning in to watch over the next two weeks.

Alia Atkinson (Swimming, Jamaica)

Photo: Clive Rose

In addition to the decorated men’s and women’s track and field squads, Jamaica is sending three athletes to the pool this year. Foremost among them is Alia Atkinson, a world record holder in the Women’s 100m Breaststroke, and the first Black female to win a gold medal in international swimming competition.

Usain Bolt (Track, Jamaica)
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This is Jamaican golden boy Usain Bolt‘s final Olympic Games, and there is still one athletic dream he hasn’t touched — running sub-19 in the 200m. From Athens (2004) to Beijing (2008) to London (2012), “Lightning Bolt” has won more medals than you can count, and seems ready to make himself at home in Rio, even though early last month he was diagnosed with a Grade 1 tear in his hamstring, and withdrew from the Jamaican Olympic qualifiers. Thankfully, according to the rules set by the Jamaican athletics governing body, an athlete is allowed medical exemptions if they can show an injury denied them a chance to compete at the trials. We have no doubt Bolt will make his final Olympic Games showing even more memorable than his first. If anyone can soak up all the good vibes that Rio has to offer, and actually use them to his advantage in competition, it’s Usain!

Marisa Dick (Gymnastics, Trinidad & Tobago)
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For Trinidadians, the name Marisa Dick brings to mind controversy embroiled in racial politics, notions of nationalism, and NSFW content. Dick’s ascension to what was originally Thema Williams’ slot in the 2016 Rio Summer Olympic Games has been met with nothing short of resentment on the part of the Trinidad & Tobago public. A Canadian-born gymnast and dual citizen, she’s been accused of finagling her way into the Rio Summer Olympics at the expense of Williams, a local favorite (lovingly known as “the girl from tots and tumblers”) who came in first in the qualifiers, after topless photos of Williams made their rounds about the Internet. Similar photos of Dick emerged shortly after but, while she ultimately earned a place in the Olympics, she hasn’t earned the respect or admiration of the people. The coming weeks will reveal if she can redeem herself in the public eye and despite the controversy, establish herself as the face of Trinidad and Tobago gymnastics.

Shelly Ann Fraser-Pryce (Track, Jamaica)
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Awarded IAFF Athlete of the Year back in 2013 alongside her countryman Usain Bolt, Jamaica’s Shelly Ann Fraser-Pryce has cemented her place as a marquee athlete with an outstanding performance in the 2012 London Olympics, where she successfully defended her 100 m title with a time of 10.75 seconds. (The second=fastest Olympic 100m time ever run by a woman.) Her success didn’t end there, as she went on to lead her team to second place in the 4 x 100m relay, setting a new national record of of 41.41 at the event. More recently, at the 2015 Beijing World Championships, she led her team to gold in the women’s 4x10om, securing the second-fastest time of 41.07, breaking the record at two consecutive world championships.

Naomy Grand’pierre (Swimming, Haiti)
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Not only does Naomy Grand’pierre have the opportunity to gain the first medal Haiti has received from the games in almost 90 years, but she is also the first female swimmer competing for the country in the Olympics. Although her times in the Caribbean Island Swimming Championships, which serve as the Olympic qualifier for Caribbean islands, didn’t qualify her for Rio, she was still selected under the Universality Rule which  allows a country with no qualifying swimmers to invite up to one male and one female athlete to compete in a single event. In this case, that is the 50-meter freestyle, where she placed eighth with a 27.67 time during her qualifiers. She will be joined by fellow Haitian Frantz Mike Itelord Dorsainvil, also in under the Universality rule.

Kirani James (Track & Field, Grenada)

Sprinter Kirani James, Grenada’s first ever Olympic medalist, finished third at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015 and is the current world leader in the 400m with a 44.08, clocked at the Drake Relays in Des Moines. That’s the second fastest 400m time ever run in the first four months of the year, behind only Michael Johnson’s showing of 43.75 seconds in 1997. Just 23, the athlete who hails from Gouyave, St John, Grenada is ready to set the track on fire for his 400m sprint.[/caption]

Clayton Laurent, Jr. (Boxing, U.S. Virgin Islands)
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In 2008, the U.S. Virgin Islands, a territory of just over 100,000 people, brought two fighters to the Beijing Olympics: brothers Julius and John Jackson, sons of legendary champion Julian “The Hawk” Jackson. Though neither brought home a medal, the men have since followed their father into the professional ranks, becoming top-ranked contenders in their respective divisions. Eight years later, their step-brother, Clayton Laurent, Jr. now aims to make an impact of his own in the super heavyweight class.

Mijaín López (Wrestling, Cuba)
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Mijaín López  is a five-time World Champion, and two-time Olympic Gold Medalist. The Greco- Roman wrestler is considered the King in the 130-kg class. Although he failed to win what would have been his sixth gold at the Las Vegas World Championships against Turkey’s Riza Kayaalp (one of his biggest rivals) in 2015, the Cuban, who trains with the German club ASV Nendingen, is still considered one of the major forces to be reckoned with in the sport. Rio will also be his third appearance as flagbearer for his country at the games, equaling the record of Cuban boxer Teofilo Stevenson, who had the honor at Munich 1972, Montreal 1976 and Moscow 1980. This will be 33-year-old López’ final Olympic Games; you can bet that for him, Gold is the only option.

Idalys Ortiz (Judo, Cuba)
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Idalys Ortiz will be one to watch in the women’s heavyweight (78+kg/172+ lbs) division in Rio. The judoka, who began her athletic career at 10 and trains predominantly with men, has over 200 medals under her belt including Olympic Bronze in 2008 in Beijing and a Gold at 2012 in London, Cuba’s first judo medal in 12 years. Add her World Championships in 2013 and 2014 and 2015 bronze, various PanAm Championships and World Tour events, and you won’t have to wonder why she made this list.

Keshorn Walcott (Javelin, Trinidad & Tobago)

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Last Olympic Games, Keshorn Walcott stunned a nation that barely even knew he existed. For Rio 2016, best believe that he will have all of Trinbago’s eyes on him. 2015 saw Walcott broking the national record three times with 86.20 in Rome, 86.43 in Birmingham and at the annual Lausanne Diamond League track and field event in Switzerland where his 90.16m throw gave him entry to the exclusive 90-metre club. And let’s not forget his 1st place throw of 83.27 during the Pan American Games in Toronto, Canada. Keshorn will be front and centre of Trinidad’s contingent as well. He has the honor of being his country’s flag bearer for the opening ceremony.