Exciting times ahead for Bermuda – Simons
A new cycle of fresh-faced athletes will march behind the Bermuda flag during the Parade of Nations in tonight's Olympic Games opening ceremony.
Bermuda will have half a dozen debutants in Rio in the form of sailors Cecilia Wollmann and Cameron Pimentel, swimmers Julian Fletcher and Rebecca Heyliger, rower Shelley Pearson and sprinter Tre Houston.
Although it be would be remiss to characterise Fletcher and Houston as “fresh faces” (Fletcher narrowly missed out on London 2012, while Houston has Commonwealth and Pan Am Games experience), the rest of the newcomers have entered the Bermudian sporting consciousness within the past few years.
Indeed, the emergence of Wollmann, Pimentel, Heyliger and Pearson has helped paint a very different picture of the island's sporting landscape to that of four years ago.
Flora Duffy and Tyrone Smith are the sole survivors from London 2012, although swimmer Roy-Allan Burch deserves an honourable mention after making an heroic comeback from an horrific injury only to miss out on Rio despite hitting the B standard.
Joining Burch on the Olympic-casualty list is Jill Terceira, with Bermuda failing to qualify in show jumping, while long jumper Arantxa King, triathlete Tyler Butterfield, and sailing siblings Jesse and Zander Kirkland have all appeared to have decided to pursue different projects, sporting or otherwise.
An injection of fresh blood is always healthy; it is a reassuring indicator that “the system” is working and that the conveyor belt of talent is moving freely.
Equally encouraging for Judy Simons, the Bermuda Olympic Association president, is that the majority of Bermuda's team should still be around for Toyko 2020.
“There's a whole new cycle coming through and that's a credit to the athletes and the support of their national governing bodies,” Simons said.
“These youngsters have been dedicated to making the Olympic team. We're proud of everybody who made the effort and everybody who made the team.
“Every athlete has a goal of reaching the Olympics but at some point they have to assess their situation as in, ‘do I go for another four years or have I reached my pinnacle'.
“There's lots of new blood for Rio and that's exciting for Bermuda.”
Qualifying for the biggest stage of all is difficult in all sports, especially for those athletes from smaller countries such as Bermuda who do not have the same financial clout as the United States, Britain and China.
Still, having seven athletes qualified, plus wild card Pimentel, is a vast improvement on Beijing 2008 when Duffy was Bermuda's only athlete to qualify, with Burch, fellow swimmer Keira Aitken and long jumpers Smith and King all handed wild cards.
Simons believes it is a tribute to the island's diversity that Bermuda will be represented in five different sports in Rio.
“It's not easy for a small country because the money situation doesn't compare to the bigger countries,” Simons said. “We don't have all the financial resources and the Government only gives us so much.
“You have to do the best you can and for a small country to have such diversification in the events we participate in is truly amazing.”
Of the new intake Wollmann is the youngest at just 18 years of age, although she has “dipped her toes in the water” at major competitions, finishing twelfth in the Laser Radial class at last summer's Pan Am Games in Toronto and tenth in the Byte CII class at the 2014 Youth Olympics in Nanjing, China.
“Ceci — my goodness, she's 18-years-old and Tokyo 2020 was her goal,” Simons said. “But, you know, after she discussed Rio with her coach [Christian Noe] she said, ‘why not, let's give it a shot'.”
Pearson is another who will enter uncharted waters at the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freita in the singles sculls. The 24-year-old faced many of her rivals for the first time at the World Cup III in Poznan, Poland, in June, reaching the B final.
“Just look at Shelley Pearson,” Simons said. “The only other rower we've had represent Bermuda at the Olympics is Jim Butterfield [in Munich in 1972].
“It wasn't until earlier this year that Shelley said to us, ‘you know, I would really like to see if I can make the Olympics'.
“There was only the one qualifying event [the Latin Olympic Continental Qualification Regatta] in Chile and, of course, she won it.
“Hopefully if the spirit is still there she will look at the next four years as well.”
Duffy, who like Smith will become a three-times Olympian, will carry the island's medal hopes in Rio.
The 28-year-old maintains her chances of a podium finish are a “very long shot”, despite being ranked No 1 in the World Triathlon Series rankings ahead of gold-medal favourite Gwen Jorgensen.
Simons does not blame Duffy for tempering expectations, but believes a podium finish is within her grasp if she can execute the perfect race.
Should Duffy deliver, she could become the island's first medal winner since boxer Clarence Hill claimed bronze in the 1976 Montreal Games.
Smith, an outside chance of challenging for a medal in long jump, competes earlier in the Games.
“It's a long shot — yes, she [Duffy] is ranked No 1 in the world but she's putting it in the right perspective,” Simons said. “Flora will go and do the best she can and hopefully it will be her day to do well.”