AN ENTHUSIASTIC spattering of admirers gathered trackside as athletes from the University of Technology (UTECH) and MVP track club trained at the Stadium East last Thursday.
With one week to go before the Penn Relays in Philadelphia, focus on fitness and not playing to the gallery is priority for Jamaica’s most heralded track and field outfit.
A 15-member team from the UTECH/MVP annex is bound for the annual event which takes place on Saturday. The ‘Penns’ have been a happy hunting ground for Jamaican schools over the years and the UTECH coaching staff is backing its team to be among the medals.
“We can never predict the Penn Relays especially based on the weather and the fact that our athletes are coming from a relatively warm climate,” said Paul Francis, one of the team’s three coaches. “But we are optimistic of our chances in the 4x100 men’s and the 4x400 female events.”
Back in the day when UTECH was the College of Arts, Science and Technology (CAST), the school’s Bolts of Lightning relay team was the rage in college athletics. The ‘Bolts’, with their snazzy black outfits, became minor celebrities and their profile gave the CAST track programme a boost.
That pales in comparison, however, to the current set-up.
Asafa Powell, the 100 metres world record holder, is among the marquee names at the UTECH-based MVP. So, too, are fellow sprinters Michael Frater and Sherone Simpson and hurdler Brigitte Foster-Hylton. All four athletes won gold medals at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, Australia in March.
These high-profile athletes are trained by a staff that is headed by Stephen Francis, the portly coach who founded MVP at UTECH in 1999.
His stocks have soared since last Junel when Powell set a world record of 9.77 seconds with a sensational run in Athens, Greece.
Frater, Simpson and Foster-Hylton also command respect internationally, something Paul Francis says has made an impression on young athletes eyeing the higher grade.
“As you would expect, the success of the programme has made it attractive to athletes coming out of high school to select UTECH against the universities overseas, which used to be the first and only preference,” he said.
As a result of this attraction, there are currently 30 athletes on the UTECH/MVP roster.
Francis is quick to point out that track and field at UTECH is not all fun and games.
“It’s extremely crucial for them to well (academically) because if they are not up to scratch they don’t go forward,” he told The Gleaner. “Their schedules are a lot more difficult than the average student, but they are not given any leeway because they are athletes.”
So far, Francis says the UTECH athletes have done well beating the books. Sherika Williams, the local 400 metres champion and a relay silver medallist at last year’s World Championships in Helsinki, Finland, is a second year student in hospitality and tourism and management.
Kalise Spencer, another quarter-miler and silver medallist at the recent CARIFTA Games in Guadeloupe, is a first-year student, also in hospitality and tourism management.
Sprinter Ryan James is a third-year student in the faculty of Education and Liberal Studies.
COST OF PROGRAMME
The UTECH sports programme is not limited to track and field. Anthony Davis, director of sports, says the school also competes in football, cricket, hockey, netball, badminton, squash, swimming and the martial arts.
Mr. Davis says it costs $17 million annually to keep the programme afloat. Most of the funding comes from Government, but he says UTECH’s administration constantly seeks corporate assistance to sponsor sports scholarships and nutrition.