I met Sanojah Gilkes last week. She is a trim, mannerly, 15-year-old but there is no mistaking that this young lady is a giant in the making. In preparation for the interview, Sanojah’s mother, Lee–Ann York, had assured me that she was shy, so I set aside a three-hour slot and went prepared to have to use all tricks in my arsenal. However, the bubbles in Sanojah quickly came through and I ended up being treated to a lovely evening, hopefully, mentoring and inspiring a bright up-and-coming star.
Sanojah is a pentathelete. Her specialty is modern pentathlon, an Olympic sport which incorporates the disciplines of fencing, shooting, swimming, horseback riding and cross country riding. I started by asking Sanojah what got her involved with such a rare sport as fencing. She informed me that she has been horseback riding since age four, heard of a camp in fencing and asked her mother to try. She has been a quick developer over the last two years that she continued to work in the discipline. She started swimming as part of her physical education classes at school and she has always paid interest to the other disciplines because, as she puts it, her entire family is athletic.
If it is so hard to be able to incorporate training and logistics to participate in a single sport as a junior athlete in Barbados, I was already in awe of Sanojah, her parents and support team for negotiating five. Her mom, Lee-Ann laments the lack of structure in sports in Barbados but praised “amazing coaches” for their individual efforts to make her daughter excel in the way that she has been able to. She explained that she thought both coaches and athletes could do a lot more to lift Barbados as a sporting and training destination if the Government provided a more favourable environment.
Sanojah has known from age 12 that she wanted to be an Olympic athlete. She originally hoped to compete in a horseback related discipline but those require a rider to own a horse. For financial reasons Sanojah gave up on that dream and chose pentathlon as her discipline instead because the horse ridden does not have to be owned by the rider.
Sanojah balances school with training. I asked her how she managed and she replied that double packing is her trick. She never walks with only the books she needs for a particular school day. She will take books of subjects she needs to revise or assignments due. She trains with coaches in each of her five disciplines. She has athletic practice and swimming at least twice a week and she fences and shoots at least once weekly. Sanojah is up by 4 a.m. most mornings to leave home by 4:45 a.m.
She is putting in the work and the gains are coming. Last month, this young athlete participated in championships in the United States. The competition happened in Colorado Springs at the Olympic Training Centre.
Sanojah participated in both the youth and junior aspects of the competition. Her age puts her in the youth category but her skill in riding allowed her to compete in the Junior category. In this relatively new discipline, this little, Barbadian-trained, lion heart placed second in the Junior competition and third in the youth competition. For her showing, she booked a place in the American national trials which she’ll be participating in next month in Texas.
Scouts are already showing interest in Sanojah and she is in training ahead of her travel. Sanojah credits her mother for teaching her how to be independent and focused. It was my absolute pleasure to share time with this young lady and I hope she achieves all the dreams she has set out for herself.
Sanojah had some advice for those engaged in the management of sport in Barbados. She explained that she felt that junior athletes need a programme that helped them to be better able to plan school time and training on a flexi-schedule. She said that there also needs to be a stronger financial framework to support athletes and their families. This is a point that Lee-Ann stressed. She explained that equipment and shoes for sport were costly and there needs to be stronger mechanisms to facilitate the landing of these items in Barbados.
(Marsha Hinds is public relations officer of the National Organization of Women. Email: [email protected])