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How Track and Field’s Jamaican Athletes Are Upholding a Historic Program

Christian Hince | May 11, 2023

Great Dane track star Travis Williams crosses the finish line for a second place finish in the Penn Relays 100m.

The University at Albany’s track and field team is profoundly dominant. They’ve been women’s outdoor America East champions in each of the last 14 seasons and men’s champions from 2009 to 2022 – with the women winning indoor titles nine times straight from 2014 to 2022.

Head coach Roberto Vives has led a historic program across his near 40 years at the school, a program reputed through the success of numerous Jamaican athletes.

Williams Boys, Part I

Jamaica has a renowned tradition for great sprinters, with names such as Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake, and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Price having represented the country as Olympic champions. Travis Williams hopes to be the next.

Travis’s season has been nothing short of historic for UAlbany. In year two, he’s set program records for races of 55m and 60m for indoor; and 100m, 200m, and 300m in the spring. Additionally, his time of 6.59 seconds for 60m at the Millrose Games in Feb. clocked in at 20th in the nation for outdoor this season.

For Travis’s accomplishments this season, he was awarded as UAlbany’s Breakthrough Male Athlete, Male Athlete of the Year, and for Best Male Championship Performance, in addition to Most Outstanding Track Performance & Coaches Award from the America East.

It’s a nice progression from his freshman year, where a fractured ankle during the preseason and a pulled hamstring kept Travis from reaching his true potential. “I didn't let my injuries define me, [I] worked on myself, then I was coming back stronger and better,” he said.

Despite originally being from Jamaica, culture shock wasn’t a problem when he came to Albany. During his childhood, Travis split time between family in Jamaica and the U.S., and later attended Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx from 10th to 12th grade. Vives also was an alumnus of Cardinal Hayes, which immediately made UAlbany an appealing destination. There was also assistant sprints coach Junior Burnett, a Jamaican and student athlete at UAlbany from 2004 to 2007 who’s held down his current role since graduating.

“All of them got acquainted, I got acquainted, and we started talking and then it just felt genuine at the time,” Travis said.

Having grown up with a Jamaican coach, the familiarity brought by Burnett being there was important. “I came to realize that I'm coming to an environment where I have people that have my same culture and I kind of gravitated towards it,” he said.

Along with the achievements of a winner, Travis has the demeanor of one. Travis is congenial and confident, jovially talking about anything from track to proper workout supplements to the importance of good sleep habits. His competitive spirit is clear too.

“The competition will always be there, just keep focusing on me, me executing my race,” he said. “It's just me, the gun, and the line. Once it starts, you're running to get a good time and you're running to win.”

Williams Boys, Part II

Shakur Williams (no relation to Travis), or “Shak” for short, was late to the game when it came to track. Starting the sport in ninth grade, he admired Yohan Blake’s gold medal performance in the 2012 London Games. While Olympian and Jamaican inspiration played a part in Shak becoming a sprinter, so did natural factors. Asthmatic since he was 2 years old, Shak found it impossible to get through training during his first couple seasons on the team.

“My third year I said alright, I know I can't run long, so I'm gonna go to the short sprints and work my butt off just to get to that line before I have any problems,” he said.

Similarly to Travis, Junior Burnett – commonly known as Coach Junior – and the pre-established Jamaican culture at UAlbany’s program were instrumental for Shak.

“When I spoke with Coach Junior and came on a visit, it felt like it was like a homely vibe,” Shak said. “There was a lot of Jamaicans on the team so I had people I could relate to.”

Shak says his sole exposure to America pre-UAlbany was a Disneyland trip at age 13, so outside of track, he still had a bit of needed adjusting upon arrival. Specifically, the size of UAlbany’s student body gave him an initial shock.

“Every day still I seen a familiar face, but [I] still sees a different person,” Shak said.

While sprinting isn’t a niche which Shak chose, it’s one he’s made his own. In his time at UAlbany, Shak’s racked up four conference titles, winning the 4x100m the last two seasons and coming in first for both the 60m and 100m in 2022. As for the challenge of his record-setting Williams counterpart, who arrived in Albany a year after him, Shak welcomes the pressure brought upon by his friend and teammate.

“I wouldn't have it any other way,” he said. “Because if I knew that I would come to training and beat Travis without even trying, then I know that I'd have to find some external motivation to get better.”

Dominique Clarke

Dominique Clarke is the quietest of this group, but she doesn’t seem any less comfortable around her teammates than anyone else. She laughs along when Shak tells a story about one day at practice where she wore a wig under a tam only to have him pull both off.

“I was telling you, the wig-tam combo,” she says to Shak. “They [Williams boys] always doing something.”

Having started out track and field as a hurdler before her hurdles coach left, sprinting became Dominique’s deal. While Clarke wasn’t the most invested in sprinting initially, after the first year she truly grew into it.

“I saw my speed getting faster, I [was] becoming better at doing it, so I was like OK, this definitely is what I want,” she said.

What didn’t take Clarke very long was deciding that she had zero interest in anything distance-oriented. “I realized anything longer than a 200 wasn't for me was when I was doing a lap, and I was like ‘this is not for me, this too long.’”

When it became recruiting time, Clarke found that UAlbany chose her, rather than the other way around. “I only ran 11.8 and I didn't reach the recruiting barrier that was 11.6,” Clarke said. “I did my research, I knew a friend that knew somebody here at UAlbany, and then I spoke to Coach Junior.”

UAlbany’s coaching staff has been one of the best parts of her experience with the program. “The coaching staff here is probably one of the best I've ever been around,” she said. “They're very welcoming, they will let you feel at home.”

Upon first coming to Albany, she was surprised by the diversity. “You have different cultures, different ethnicities, so it was very shocking here because in Jamaica, there was only one race dominantly,” Clarke said.

Clarke didn’t linger on this adjustment, though, saying “everybody can adapt to anything.”

Just like her two teammates sitting at the table and plenty of her countrymen and women before, Clarke gives sprinting a proud name. She holds records in both the women’s outdoor 100m and 200m and the indoor 55m, 60m, and 200m.

Shannon Bailey

At just 8 years old, Bailey stood at 5 foot 10 inches tall. A student at Vaz Preparatory School in Kingston, she describes track and field having been competitive from “a very young age.” While this piqued her interest as a child, Bailey met stubborn resistance.

Bailey jumping during UAlbany’s home meet, the Bobbi Palma Classic, on April 21. She won the event with a 5-07.00 mark.

Photo Credit: Christian Hince / the ASP

“I had been begging my mom to do it [let her compete]” Bailey said. “She said no, every single time.”

However, Bailey’s mother soon became acquainted with a “track parent” who saw the potential and interest of her very tall daughter.

“Every day after school, he [the parent] walked her down and said ‘Shannon, she needs to do high jump, she needs to join track,’” said Bailey.

Outnumbered, her mother gave in, and the rest was history for Bailey, an All-America East athlete and the 2022 conference high jump champion. The now 21-year-old, 6-foot-tall jumper tries to talk to her family back in Jamaica at least once a week, but communicating can be a little difficult sometimes.

“I call ‘em and ask about something that happened back home, I won't find out,” Bailey said “I'm like, ‘y’all can tell me so still, you know?’”

Bailey doesn’t mean this as a reprimand, though. “They've been supportive, they’ve been understanding,” Bailey said. “I have zero complaints when it comes to how they’ve been.”

Bailey describes herself as never having been too worried about adjusting, calling herself independent. “I was more excited than afraid or anxious about coming into a new environment, but definitely having people that were from similar backgrounds as I [Jamaicans] helped,” Bailey said.

On the field, Bailey’s been one of the Great Danes’ best performers, finishing 2022 as an all-America East athlete and winning the high jump at the conference championships. In addition, she ended the year as an all-academic conference athlete.

Travis Robinson

The 6 foot 4 inch, 240-pound Travis Robinson is out of commission, wearing a t-shirt, basketball shorts, and crocs. With an injured hip-groin area, the spinning needed to generate force when throwing isn’t possible for him right now, and the timetable for his return is also unclear.

“I’m not sure man, we gonna see and try to take it a day at a time and be positive and stuff like that,” he said.

Robinson doesn’t call himself a social person, saying that he “fits within a selective group of people,” but once he gets going, he’s funny and plenty personable, sporting a toothy smile.

Robinson jokes about how he could beat Shak in a 100m race given a 70m head start, admitting that he needs to get in shape first. Unlike the other athletes here, track and field was not his first choice.

“See I wanted to play basketball,” he said, describing how he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his older brother.

Aside from being the home of Knicks legend Patrick Ewing, Jamaica’s not much known for basketball otherwise, with its national team being ranked 109 of 161 in the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) World Ranking.

Instead, in seventh grade, a friend of Robinson gave him a pitch to join track and field, saying he’d “get all the girls, all the attention, so he was really selling me into it.”

Robinson described himself as unfit, making the experience highly difficult early on. “If I [ran] 30 meters, I would be short of breath, I'm not even joking,” Robinson said.

Robinson quit later on during season one after not competing, but returned the following year, dedicating two days instead of just one per week to training. Then, in ninth grade, Robinson was approached by the team’s throwing captain with a piece of advice: “if you train seriously [for] one year and if you don't get anything from it, stop.”

Following through with this, he found results. Robinson placed fifth in shot put at the 2018 Inter-Secondary Schools Boys and Girls Championships, a nationally renowned high school age track and field meet in Jamaica. This success has translated in Albany, with him ending 2022 with the title of America East rookie of the year. This included earning titles for both indoor and outdoor shot put, with him also winning the outdoor discus championship in a school-record performance.

He finds the track and field team to be a bit underserved, lamenting the lack of an indoor facility after the collapse of “The Bubble” in 2021.

“This is not easy, because Albany is cold, I like to say, 90% of the time,” Robinson said.

The Capital Region is a far cry from the climate of Robinson’s hometown and Jamaica’s capital, Kingston, where average monthly temperatures never dip to 70°F or lower. Robinson talked about the risk of injury brought to athletes running outside on cooler Albany days, with muscle and joint stiffness being natural side effects of enduring cold weather.

“A lot of athletes get hurt unnecessarily, because we don’t have facilities,” Robinson said. “When you don’t have certain facilities, you can’t really run as fast as you want in it [cold weather] because it can get shin splints.”

While Robinson is disappointed to see his team’s constant success coming without reward in this regard, in contrast from a men’s basketball team that will play in a newly renovated stadium next season despite finishing last in the American East in 2022-23. However, he acknowledges the economics around college sports, saying “I’m not the one with the millions.”

Robinson still took it somewhat personally, saying “I want to be the best version of myself, obviously.”

While injured and unsatisfied with the university, Robinson enjoyed the fact that success is something that he and athletes such as Travis and Shak Williams, Shannon Bailey, and Dominique Clarke can share.

“When you have a group with everybody shining, it makes it fun because you guys can have similar conversation,” Robinson said.


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