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Olympians urge young females to have belief

Jearl Miles Clark speaks to the audience at the BOA Women in Sports banquet at Hamilton Princess last night(Photograph by Lawrence Trott)

Guest speakers Hazel Clark and Jearl Miles Clark had a strong message for young female athletes at last night’s Women in Sports Banquet hosted by the Bermuda Olympic Association, urging them to believe in themselves, not to quit and that failing is all a part of succeeding.

The sisters-in-law, who are both United States Olympic track runners, shared their experiences as track runners at the event held at Fairmont Hamilton Princess on International Women’s Day.

Clark specialised in the 800 metres and was a member of the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Olympic teams, while Miles Clark, who married Hazel’s brother JJ Clark, competed in the 400 and 800 in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona where she won the silver medal with the 4x400 metres relay team.

“I love the theme of tonight ‘Be the Champion of Your Life’, and that’s what I’m going to talk about,” said Clark, who is married to Bermudian Shane Mac and works at the Bermuda Tourism Authority as director of sports and business development. Her mother was in the audience, visiting from New Jersey.

“I have a sister [Joetta] who is a four-time Olympian and my brother goes and marries a five-time Olympian and gold medal-winner. I decided early on I was not going to run track because I did not want to have to follow in those big footsteps.

“I said to my parents I do not want to run track, they said, ‘that’s OK, but you are going to do something’. And they put me in everything from art class, to basketball, to soccer, I was at cross-country skiing camp and hated it because it was freezing.

“They kept exposing me and said the one rule is you have to give your best and you cannot quit. I’m telling you I wanted to quit but I had no option. That taught me a lot about life, when things get tough and aren’t going my way I can’t just throw up my hands and quit. You can’t get anywhere that way.”

The Clarks were speaking to females athletes across many sports, including Paralympian Jessica Lewis who will be on a panel this morning at the same venue for the expo, along with Olympic diver Katura Horton Perinchief and Dominique Richardson, who was forced to quit playing football because of knee injuries and is now captain of the Bermuda netball team. They will be accompanied by their mothers on the panel, to discuss the importance of parental support.

Clark certainly got plenty of support from her parents, her father Joe in particular who inspired the film Lean on Me.

“I remember one day I was on the ice, was up in the air and came down face first,” she recalled. “I don’t remember anything after that but I woke up in the hospital and looked over and saw my daddy. I thought he was going to comfort me, but just said, ‘I’ve had enough, you’re running track’. A few weeks later he was driving me to Pennsylvania and I get on the track, the gun goes and I’m off.

“I just went for it, and was winning, beating everybody. They’re right, I didn’t have to train, I’m killing it, this is my sport. I get to the 500 mark and one by one they pass me and I couldn’t feel my legs. Before I know it I’m in last place.

“My mom was on the side and I could hear every word she is saying, because I was moving so slow. They clapped me in and when I got to the end they were putting the next group of children on the track. I was so embarrassed and said I would never run again. I could hear the headlines now, ‘Hazel Clark is a failure of the Clark family’.

“My dad came up to me and asked me how did I feel and then said ‘I wanted you to learn a lesson today, you have the talent and are the best one out there but you didn’t put the work in’. I never forgot that feeling of being clapped in, I didn’t like that feeling.

“It worked and I never forgot it. A year later I was number one in the country in the 800 metres, from last place to number one. Young people, it is not always going to go your way. Imagine if I had never raced again because I lost that race. I wouldn’t be here with you right now.

“Track and field has opened so many doors for me, it more about medals and awards. The reason why I met my husband and have the job I have is because of track and field. It all came through sports.”

Clark attended the University of Florida on an athletic scholarship and was inducted into the university’s Hall of fame as a “Gator Great” in 2012.

Miles Clark, who left her small home town of Gainesville, Florida on the urging of her mother and attended Alabama A & M University, graduating in 1989. She once held the American record in the women’s 800 with a time of 1min 56.40sec and five-time Olympian with two gold and one silver medal to her credit.

“I come from a small, rural town, one that not too many people get out of, but my mom had a plan for me,” she told the audience. “I didn’t know the plan, I thought I was going to be at home with my mom all the time.

“She had other plans for me, she wanted me to go to school and I had the opportunity to go to school through running. I was a late bloomer and didn’t start to really get fast until my senior year in high school, when I went to our state championships and won. I had some college coaches looking at me, one in particular was Joe Henderson from a Division 2 school in Huntsville, Alabama.

“He wanted me to come to his university and look around, but again I had no plans, just stay at home with mom and get a job. I go up there and meet the coach and he gets on the phone and says to my mom, ‘I like you daughter, she can run fast, I’m offering her a full scholarship to university.

“It was one of the best things that could have happened to me. I was a pretty shy kid and the coach there was like a father figure, which I didn’t have at home. He nurtured my gift and had a plan for me, like my mom who didn’t want me to stay in a small town.

“She wanted all of her children to go away, travel the world and that’s what track and field did for me. It got me to see the world. I ended going to my first Olympic trials and made my first Olympic team.

“My mom had a dream for me, that came true, my coach had a dream for me and that came true. Now it was time to get a dream for myself. After I made the Olympic team it opened my eyes. I found a passion and it lit a fire in me.”

She urged the young athletes: “Forget all the naysayers, don’t be afraid of failure, things are not always going to go right. But continue to get up, continue to have big dreams and never be afraid of failure. Find your passion, go for it and never let anybody tell you can’t do it.”