“To be honest, I still don’t have the emotion that everyone would expect. I guess this is just me not getting carried away and trying to stay focused and just working towards competing next year.”
That was Teniel Campbell’s response mere days after officially qualifying for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. Her head is still on her shoulders and her feet on the ground as opposed to being on cloud nine.
She sat down for an interview with the Sunday Guardian at her manager Desmond Roberts’ St Augustine home last week.
Ironically, it was the same place where her journey to the Olympics began almost two years to the day. She recalled how they stayed up past 1 am the night before they travelled servicing her bike in the small gym behind Roberts’ house. That she would qualify for an Olympic Games two years later was a shadow of a thought then.
However, Martinique pedalled off the process. At the Elite Women’s Caribbean Road Cycling Championships, she won double gold in the individual time trial and women’s road race.
“That was just my golden opportunity,” she recalled.
Indeed it was because four months later, in February 2018, Campbell was selected for a high-level training camp at the International Cycling Union’s (UCI) World Cycling Centre (WCC) in Switzerland.
Now just 22 years, she’s become the first-ever female cyclist from the English-speaking Caribbean to have qualified for an Olympics. She admits the success in such a short period is hard to fathom.
“It was just two years ago this journey started so it’s a really short space of time to accomplish this. I guess this shows how dedicated I am to my craft and that once I put my mind to something I’m just that committed and I’m going to go after it and achieve it,” she told the Sunday Guardian.
Having completed her stint at the WCC, she’ll ride right into Italian club Valcar Cylance’s unit as the team’s first-ever international signing. They’re a professional women’s cycling club founded two years ago.
“I know it’s going to be completely different,” the road cyclist said as she prepares for her switch and exposure to a new culture and way of doing things. She said she expects life in Italy at her new club will be vastly different from that of Switzerland.
“At the UCI Centre they take care of you. They prepare the meals and everything. We all stay together in a house. With this new Italian team, I have to cook for myself...” Campbell joked.
She added: “It’s going to be completely different and a brand new lifestyle for me but I’m looking forward to it.”
The international reputation she’s created for herself has already created some early hype in Italy.
She explained: “From what I’ve heard they’re talking about me a lot across there, so it’s just excitement from both sides and I’m looking forward to working together and seeing how much success we can get next year as a unit and how well we mesh together as a team.”
But Campbell is very cautious in how she attributes her success.
“This is not a one-man show,” she made clear during the interview.
It is as much an accomplishment for manager Roberts as it is for her.
“He believed in me when no one else did and he took the initiatives to dig in his own pocket if he had to fund something for me and that was really genuine and nice to actually meet that type of person at such a young age in my sporting career,” she said of him.
Roberts was part of a small, core group that kept Campbell on course to her goal, mentally and physically.
Told that there were headlines now but that there may have been a time when people didn’t believe she could achieve anything in cycling, Campbell’s demeanour in the interview changed.
She began looking away to hide a drop of tear running down the right side of her cheek. One drop turned to two and then her eyes filled with water.
“It’s kind of funny because now it’s the same people coming to try to talk to me or get on to me. That’s a scary feeling for me because you don’t know who is coming to you genuine right now,” she said, pushing up the glasses on her forehead to wipe her now tearful eyes.
“Knowing the things that I went through to get to where I am today, I know it brings a lot of tears to my family’s eyes and everyone who supported me. When I wasn’t anything, they saw something... from the beginning so I hope to make everyone proud,” she said with a loud sigh.
One of the people very proud of her is her mother Euphemia Huggins, the 1989 Sportswoman of the Year who played basketball and netball for Trinidad and Tobago.
“She’s really happy, being an athlete herself, this being the only games she never qualified for, so I hope that she will be there with me in Tokyo and can live that dream through her daughter.”
Her brother Akil Campbell, who is also a national cyclist, is part of “the core support” Campbell wants with her in Tokyo.
This is a journey that could have easily been derailed had it not been for Campbell’s determination and bravery. She reflected on how her return to cycling in form five raised serious concerns from her teachers.
“I remember leading up to CXC, I had just gotten back into cycling and I was doing sciences and some teachers were like ‘what are you doing?’ I knew I could juggle the both and I passed all eight subjects with ones and twos and then I went on to do CAPE. I still kept doing cycling and kept improving in the sport,” she recalled.
Now as she adapts to the ever-changing life abroad in the various cities she visits, that experience in school taught her a valuable lesson.
“I think for me, being in school and still being able to do good in sport is good at a young age because it teaches you a lot of responsibilities because if you ask all my teachers, I was never really one to sleep in class,” she said as she giggled.
For Campbell, it’s a completely new experience now. Everyone wants part of her, even those who didn’t want to fund her when it seemed she wasn’t destined for much.
“I know it (sponsorship) didn’t start at the early stages and it’s now coming but it’s not something that I really try to take on cause it’s not good as an athlete. Your focus is just supposed to be on training and using the tools you have to continue developing and when the time is right, everything will just start falling into place,” she said.