The year 2022 started with a bang for 18-year-old Trinidad and Tobago field athlete Aaron Antoine. Now, though, it is likely to end with a whimper.
Antoine, a gifted athlete in the high jump and long jump events as well as basketball, spent part of March at an elite development camp hosted by the NBA Academy Latin America in San Luis Potosi, Mexico.
By April, the Presentation College (San Fernando) student was in Kingston, Jamaica where he set a national junior record en route to gold in the Carifta Games high jump. And in June, he added the NGC-NAAATT National Open Championships high jump crown to his growing trophy case.
The six foot 10 NGC Youth Elite Programme (YEP) athlete has not had much go his way since then, though.
This week, Antoine withdrew from the upcoming FIBA 3×3 Under-18 World Cup in Debrecen, Hungary due to niggling injuries. But there was nothing deliberate about his non-appearance at the Cali 2022 World Athletics Under-20 Championships, staged in Santiago de Cali, Colombia.
Antoine was struggling with a “constant pain” in his calves in the lead-up to the High Jump qualifying event in Colombia—although, in training on Emancipation Day, he matched the 2.05 metre jump that landed him the Open Championship title.
His first competition day was on 2 August.
“On the morning of the [qualifying round], I was able to do a little thing [on my calves],” Antoine said. “We got to the [training stadium] about ten to eight. I ran a lap and went back by the massage therapist (Anthony Walcott) for a check-up.”
The “training stadium” was roughly a three to five minute drive away from the main stadium, Estadio Olimpico Pascual Guerrero, while the treatment area—where Antoine went for his massage—was approximately 300 metres away from the call room area.
Antoine said he never heard the call for the event while his coach, Wellington Wilson—who had been in and out of the treatment area—said he heard only an undecipherable murmur from the PA system.
“I did not hear Trinidad and Tobago or the name Aaron Antoine called,” the Couva youngster explained. “We went back to the call room area but nobody was there.”
Panicked, Antoine and his team, led by manager Michelle Stoute, tried to find a bus to take him to the Estadio Olimpico Pascual Guerrero in time to compete. It was roughly 9.20am. The event was set to jump off at 10.20am.
A track and field veteran, who spoke to Wired868 on the condition of anonymity, explained the “call system” at major championships, which thwarted Antoine.
“Call one is a call for all athletes in the event to report; it is very much like a roll call for you to be marked present,” said the source. “The athlete or someone acting on the athlete’s behalf can report. If it’s a three-call system, call two is to check your uniform—logos for example must conform to a certain size, so too must the length of the nail (the spike) on your running shoe [so as] to protect the track.
“The items in your bag are also checked as some items like electronics are not allowed.”
The third and final call is for the athletes to proceed to the competition arena.
Blocked from boarding a bus tasked with transporting female sprinters for the heats of the Women’s 100 metre event, set for 12:30 pm, Antoine eventually got on to a bus carrying spectators to the event venue. He got to the Estadio Olimpico Pascual Guerrero before the start of the High Jump event—but, critically, after the routine checks were completed.
“I spoke to one of the officials and told them I wanted to compete,” Antoine told Wired868. “I could see the high jump athletes going through their warm-up paces.”
Instead, Antoine was assigned a DNS (did not start) designation while a protest on his behalf by the Trinidad and Tobago contingent was denied by the Jury of Appeal.
“It was really hard watching the High Jump Final in Cali,” said Antoine. “I was glad that the Jamaican (Brandon Pottinger) won, but when I saw the height of 2.14 metres I felt as though I could have ultimately won it.”
Antoine jumped 2.16 metres in Kingston, Jamaica to beat Pottinger to Carifta gold, earlier this year—silencing partisan spectators at “The Office” in the process. But you could hear a pin drop in the Trinidad and Tobago camp that afternoon, as they watched Pottinger become a world junior champion, while the lanky T&T athlete was a mere spectator.
Antoine admitted that he fought to hold back the tears as he explained the catastrophic chain of events to teammates.
“The world-lead heading into the event was a height of 2.26 metres, so I was really surprised by the heights I saw in qualifying,” said Antoine. “I had a 2.05 metre jump in training and that would have put me in the final. I thought people would have been jumping around 2.12 metres to make the final.”
He could not shake the fact that he recently bettered the jump that got Pottinger the gold medal.
“That put the final nail in the coffin for me!” Antoine said.
NAAATT president George Comissiong was reached for comment on what transpired at the High Jump competition in Cali, but declined to speak on the matter.
Antoine hoped to find solace from his other love: basketball; and, specifically, the 3×3 FIBA World Cup. His basketball assets are obvious and his appearance at a NBA Latin America camp suggests that he already has some international attention.
“[The NBA camp] was an amazing experience especially because I consider myself an amateur in basketball,” he said. “It showed me the level that other ballers that are my age were at and the difference in playing style compared to Trinidad ballers. It gave me motivation to continue basketball for sure.”
By Antoine’s own admission, the physical demands for basketball and field events are chalk and cheese—as the former sport requires constant sprinting, shuttles, jumping and shifting direction. But he wants to remain a dual-athlete for as long as possible and is even looking for overseas schools that will facilitate his dream.
“It’s not really a question I like to answer when it comes to solely deciding to do high jump or play basketball,” he said. “I would like to go as far as possible playing both sports.”
Dr Jason Pilgrim—an athletic trainer whose CV includes work with the T&T Red Force cricket team, USA Cricket, the Pakistan Super League (PSL) as well as local netball and track and field—commended Antoine for his strides in both sports and noted that a number of American footballers also did track and field at the collegiate level.
NBA legend Wilt Chamberlain also competed in field events at Overbrook High School, including high jump, before going on to secure an absurd number of NBA records.
There were local references too, as Pilgrim pointed to Jared Elcock, Jereem Richards and Richard Thompson as athletes who competed in numerous events across track and field during their careers.
“I’d actually like to see more dual athletes from ages 6-15,” said Pilgrim, a director at Sports Medic TT. “I think we specialise too early. If you want to pursue a university career in two sports, go for it.
“Of course, in a contact sport you can collide with somebody and get seriously hurt, but being a dual-athlete builds a greater foundation when it comes to physical literacy.”
However, he cautioned about the importance of dual-athletes managing their workload, so as to ensure longevity in the sport. Open communication with the coaches and management team of both sports, along with a strong physical foundation, is key to ensure that the athlete is not “overworked”.
Incidentally, Antoine has fought off niggling injuries since Carifta. He did not complete his routine at the June NGC-sponsored NAAATT Open Championships, even though he did enough to take first place.
And, in the end, injuries put paid to his ambition of competing in the FIBA 3×3 Under-18 World Cup too.
“I’ve made the decision not to take part for different reasons,” Antoine told Wired868. “The initial reason is that it was just too tough mentally for me at the time, but I went by the doctor [on Thursday] and he told me to call it a season because of the condition my body is in.
“I have a few injuries: calf, ankle and knee… The doctor said I just need a few weeks off.”
With the World Athletics Under-20 Championships now in his rearview mirror, and the FIBA 3×3 Under-18 World Cup no longer on his radar, Antoine says he has a point to prove at the 2023 Carifta Games and the 2023 Commonwealth Youth Games.
“I feel as though I have things to prove to myself and God,” he said. “I will continue to thank Jesus Christ no matter what. Anything can happen, so I always keep God close to me.”
When you see Aaron, you immediately feel that grand 6 foot 10 presence. And rest assured he will be rolling in his two-man army as well.
One hopes that this talented teenager can steer clear of injuries, as he pursues his dual-athlete dream.