Like most Caribbean islands, Barbados relies on its track and field athletes to shine at the Olympic Games.
Sixteen years after sprinter Obadele Thompson won the country its first and only Olympic medal in the sport, Akela Jones is ready to add to her nation’s Olympic medal tally in Rio.
The all-round talent could in fact be in contention for two medals as she is scheduled to compete in the heptathlon from 12-13 August and then in the high jump lagter in the athletics programme.
“Clearing 1.98m in the high jump played a part (in deciding which events to contest in Rio),” said Jones. “The schedule allows me to do the heptathlon and the high jump. I was a little down not doing the long jump, but I am going for what’s best for me, for my country, my training and my coach. Based on the rankings, I am ranked higher in the heptathlon and high jump, so that made it easier to decide.
“We have a plan,” she added, “and if it goes well, I want gold in Rio.”
Having already set personal bests this year in five of the seven heptathlon disciplines, Jones completed her tune-up for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games with two medals at the NACAC Under-23 Championships in San Salvador last month.
“That was a great preparation meet,” said Jones, who won gold in the high jump with 1.91m and took silver in the long jump with an impressive leap of 6.74m despite a strong headwind, just missing gold on count-back. “I thought I did an amazing job with the training that I have been doing. I am back on my high jump and long jump games.
“My performance in the hurdles was good considering the hurdles workouts that I have been doing,” added Jones, who finished fourth in the 100m hurdles in San Salvador in 13.29. “With the crowd in Rio, I think the competition there is going to be phenomenal.”
Although Jones won the world U20 long jump title in 2014, her most noteworthy achievement to date came earlier this year at the NCAA Indoor Championships in Birmingham, Alabama.
She was one of the favourites for the pentathlon title, but fell in the first event, the 60m hurdles. She lined up for the next pentathlon discipline, though, and cleared a world-leading 1.98m in the high jump, followed by a 6.80m national indoor record in the long jump.
Jones did not finish the last pentathlon event, the 800m, but her performances in the jumping disciplines are among the best ever achieved in a combined events competition.
Jones set her heptathlon best of 6371 when winning the NCAA title in 2015. She came close to that earlier this year, scoring 6307 at the Mt SAC Relays in April. Two months later – and in contrast to the indoor edition in March – it was her performances in the jumping events that let her down at the NCAA Championships as she finished third, more than 300 points shy of her best.
The combined total of her outright personal bests, meanwhile, is 6801. And it seems like just a matter of time before Jones comes close to matching her personal bests – such as her 12.94 in the 100m hurdles, 14.85m in the shot, 1.98m in the high jump and 6.80m in the long jump – within a heptathlon competition to establish her among the world’s best combined eventers.
“This is my first Olympics and I want to leave a stamp,” she said. “I want to be in the final and get a medal.”
The 1.88m tall athlete reflected on how much she has grown as an athlete since winning her world U20 gold medal two years ago, the first global U20 medal of any hue won by an athlete from Barbados.
After a two-year stint at Oklahoma Baptist University, she took a sociology and criminology programme at Kansas State University. “Back then I needed to learn a lot,” she said. “I needed to learn how to work my body, how to use my body to propel myself forward.
“I think the transition to a new coach has been very smooth,” she added of Cliff Rovelto. “He knows how to coach world-class elite athletes. That played a major role; different training and a more controlled environment. No distractions.”
Born in the parish of St Michael, where the capital Bridgetown is located, Jones is the second youngest of seven siblings in a sporting family. “My brothers and sisters have practiced different sports,” she said. “My siblings did netball, volleyball and football. My brother played basketball. In my family, doing sport is expected of you.”
She soon showed her talent in the high jump, taking silver at the 2008 Carifta Games in St Kitts and Nevis. One year later, she improved her personal best by 10 centimetres to 1.81m and came within one centimetre of that mark to take silver at the Carifta Games in St Lucia. She also finished third in the long jump.
Combining both vertical and horizontal jumps early in her career, Jones finished sixth in the long jump at the IAAF World U18 Championships in 2011 and took a double victory in both events at the 2012 Central American and Caribbean Championships.
“From a young age, my personality and attitude is what drove me to try to be better at what I did,” said Jones. So it was only a matter of time before she made it to the Olympics.
“I was expecting to go,” she said. “I worked so hard. But to get to go this year is definitely a dream come true. A lot more dreams will come true.”
Jones will end her Olympic preparations in Kansas before travelling to Rio. “We are working at trying to improve certain things between now and August 12,” she said.
In Rio, she will have the chance to catch up with some of her good friends within the sport, including world 400m silver medallist Shaunae Miller of The Bahamas, Jamaica’s world indoor 60m hurdles champion Omar McLeod and USA’s Olympic high jump silver medallist Erik Kynard.
But her primary focus is, of course, on the competition and Jones will carry the hopes of more than 285,000 Barbadians, who expect their newest track and field star to once again put their country on the world sporting map.
“Coming from a small nation, I want to be the first person to go there and do this and put my name in the history books,” said Jones.
“There is a lot of hard work behind the scenes,” she added. “My country and my school play a great part in me coming out there and do my best. Every time I step on the track, I want to leave a legacy and break records.”
Javier Clavelo Robinson for the IAAF