Seeing a living Olympic legend in Thessaloniki is not the most common of sights. Even more so when you talk about Veronica Campbell-Brown, the three times golden Olympic medallist from Jamaica, who visited the northern Greek city and revealed all that has turned her into the great champion that she is today: the carefree childhood in her birthplace, the rural parish of Trelawny, her first golden Olympic medal, her adventure with doping, and also her role as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. The best of all? She wouldn’t rule out switching to bobsleigh, either!
Interview Nikos Koudas
follow me @nkoudas
Photos Nikos Kardaras
When she was a young girl, her mother used to send her to the grocery store when she was in need of a missing ingredient, safe in the knowledge that she would be back in no time, right on time for the serving of the family table. Apart from being the fastest among her nine brothers and sisters, Veronica was also the main attraction in her neighborhood, as all the locals used to gather on the streets to watch her compete with and beat even the older boys of Trelawny.
Few could imagine that ten years later, that small, mercurial girl would rewrite Jamaica’s history books in track and field, by becoming the first Caribbean sprinter to win a gold Olympic medal in an individual discipline and seven medals in total, during four Olympic Games!
Despite of all her tremendous success, however, Veronica Campbell-Brown remains a deeply modest, philosophical and grateful human being, for all the blessings that her life has brought. She speaks slowly and serenely, with a gentle tone in her voice. The crucifix that is hanging from her neck proves her deep faith in God, while in her eyes one can clearly see a genuine kindness, coupled with an enviable completeness – and all that accompanied by a crystal clear laughter, straight from the heart.
Veronica, welcome to Thessaloniki. What is the purpose of your visit in our city?
Thank you very much. Thessaloniki is such a beautiful city! I’ve been coming here for many years. Actually this is where my Greek physical therapist, Savvas Panavoglou, lives, so I normally come to Greece for treatment and training. He helps me a lot, and he oftens travels with me to the world championships and all the other meetings where I participate.
So, how did this cooperation come along? Aren’t you a bit far from each other?
(Laughs) Well, when I am in the United States, I have another masseuse I work with. However when I am in the circuit, I work with my whole group, together with Savvas. We met in 2006, during the world indoor championships in Moscow. He was introduced to my management group team by a Greek athlete who has the same manager with me. Of course Savvas is very experienced, as he used to be a national champion in discus, so when we met, it just… clicked!
You are the youngest Olympic medalist in Jamaica’s history (silver medal in 4x100m relay in Sydney 2000, at 18), the first sprinter from the Caribbean to win a gold Olympic medal (200m and 4x100m relay in Athens 2004) and also one of only two women in Olympic history to have defended her 200m title (2004-2008). Do you feel complete or do you still have an ultimate goal in your career?
I am truly grateful for all I have achieved in my life, but I still have a burning desire for more! I still feel that I have not reached my limits yet, and I really want to push myself to achieve that. Everything I have accomplished in my life is because of track and field and to me is a way of life, so I cannot stop now, it is such a big part of me. It would be really nice if destiny holds more success in the future for me, for example a gold medal in 100m, hopefully in Rio 2016. My goal is to continue to train hard and take each season as it comes.
Will we see you In Brazil in two years time?
I certainly hope so! The first challenge is to make the Jamaican team every year, because as you know we have to go through the national trials. My main objective is to stay healthy, to train well and have a very good base on which to build upon. So, first of all the goal is to make the team, and as long as I am in the team, then anything can happen…
You had a very difficult adventure in your life a couple of years ago, with the doping allegations case. In what ways would you say that this case shaped you as a person?
I learned a lot about how the world works and I realized that life can be really unfair. I have never used drugs in my career, and it was something that came out of nowhere. I was raised in a house where I learned not to be dishonest, not to steal, so I would never do such a thing. I love my sport, I respect the other competitors, and I would never jeopardise my sport and career like that. My talent was a blessing from God and my success was the result of hard work. I honestly don’t know how this story came about, but it is behind me now. In due time, I know that the truth is revealed. It was really a struggle for me, but I moved on from there. This whole adventure deepened my faith in God, as I was raised as a Christian. Only God himself can send us the right help, because this is a crazy world that we live in, and we don’t know what can happen to us…
Would you consider switching to bobsleigh, like your colleague Lolo Jones did for the USA team? You know we really loved the “Cool Runnings” movie here in Greece!
(Laughs) Yes, why not? I never rule anything out! Although there is no women’s bobsleigh team in Jamaica right now, if the federation decides to invest more money to it, I would definitely try it. However, I would not drive, but I could be the brake, like Lolo did! Actually I watched our men’s team in the Sochi Winter Olympics. It was real fun, and it’s such a fast sport! I remember the 1988 team in Calgary, Canada, even though I was six years old back then, but it certainly was a crazy thing for Jamaica, since we don’t even have snow!
You come from the Jamaican parish of Trelawny, which is famous for being the “home” of track and field champions, like Usain Bolt, Ben Johnson, Rosemary Whyte and Omar Brown, your husband to name just a few! So, what is the secret behind that?
It is true! Well, Trelawny is in the countryside of Jamaica, so to speak, and it is a rural area, with a lot of farming, many hills. The people there work very hard every day, they plant their own food, doing farming jobs, so there is a certain work ethic among them. When I was a child, I used to walk all the way to school. I don’t know if it is just the terrain we grow up, but you can never rule out talent. However, it is how you groom that talent that determines how much you achieve.
How did your relationship with track and field start? Is it true that your mother used to send you to the grocers all the time, because you were the fastest among your siblings?
(Laughs) Yes, it’s true! I used to love running and my mum knew that I would be back in no time, right before dinner was served! I have five brothers and four sisters and we used to play all together. We got on very well with each other. One of my younger brothers, the one who came right after me, used to fight me a lot, but it was all out of love. When we ran out on my neighborhood’s streets, the people used to gather around to watch me run with the older boys. There was this steep hill close to where I lived, and we used to run downhill barefoot, in full speed!
Which one of your medals/successes do you rate as the biggest, the one which holds a special place in your heart?
They are all special, but I think my 200m gold medal in Beijing 2008 was the most special moment, everything leading up to it was very emotional. The fact that I was able to return after Athens and defend my gold medal was a truly great accomplishment. I felt that a whole life’s hard work was finally rewarded.
You must have really fond memories from Greece, especially because of the fact that you won two gold and one bronze medal in the Athens 2004 Olympics. What do you remember the most?
Actually, that was the first time I fell in love with Greece! I was just a young girl, winning her first gold Olympic medal in an individual discipline, and to achieve that was so special. It is a great feeling to see your dream become reality. Of course it was all the more special and unique to be in Athens, because I had achieved it in the home of the Olympics. The history and everything really gets to you!
You were Jamaica’s flag bearer in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Describe your feelings.
It was an amazing, indescribable feeling. It was such a great honour. You know, Jamaica has such a rich history in track and field, and when I was growing up I used to watch all our great sprinters in the Olympic Games. So to be able to hold our national flag, was something that I will never forget as long as I live, because I know how much people in Jamaica love track and field and how much I am loved back home.
What was your childhood hero when you were growing up?
It was Merlene Ottey, of course. She is such a sweetheart, apart from a great athlete! She used to go to same high school as I did, Vere Technical High School. She was such a huge talent and a role model for me, I always looked up to her. We are good friends now and we get together in Florida where I live, or back home in Jamaica, because she now lives in Slovenia.
You are also UNESCO’s GoodWill Ambassador since 2009, promoting gender equality among other values, while you also have your own charity foundation. How important are these roles in your life? Would you say more than being a track and field superstar?
They are very important. I believe that it’s wonderful to be able to give back something to your fellow citizens, and to be able to see the smile on their faces. I am truly grateful that I have the opportunity to do that. My foundation’s goal is to help young girls receive a proper education, offering scholarships from high school level, leading up to their graduation from university. I am also trying hard to promote gender equality, a really tough issue all around the world. Unfortunately, women nowadays are still treated less equally than men. Women have to prove themselves over and over again, they have to prove that they are worthy of equal payment, equal treatment etc. The problem is being addressed, but this is not enough. There is still a huge gap that needs to be closed…
You once said, “As long as you have breath, as long as the sun shines, and the trees and the grass sustain life, no dreams are too huge to come alive”. What is your dream?
My dream is to fulfill my potential and to always be a role model for young people, especially gilrls. I have a great desire to help them reach their dreams. I believe that the way to achieve this, is by continuing to pursue my own dreams and goals. If the kids see me do that, hopefully they will also be motivated to do the same.
What is your opinion on Greek track and field athletes? Do you know any of them?
To be honest I don’t know any of the athletes personally. I knew of Katerina Thanou and Kostas Kenteris in Athens 2004. Nevertheless, every time I visit Greece, I can see the way your athletes train and I can see how focused, hard working and determined they are. I enjoy it every time I come here, because everybody is so polite and nice, true professionals.