Leaps and Bounds
It’s a memory Shara Proctor might want to banish forever: tears and rain streaming down her face as she grabs her left thigh during her run-up at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow’s Hampden Park last July. It had been the latest in a string of poor showings for the 26-year-old Anguillian long jumper, including the 2012 London Olympics and 2013 World Championships—each time after leading the field in impressive qualifying rounds.
“I just choked,” Shara laughs, somehow finding levity in those disappointments. “I let the situation get the best of me, and I didn’t know how to handle the pressure.”
Competing on the world stage is a far cry from her early days training at the Ronald Webster Park here in Anguilla. As a student athlete, Shara was proficient in tennis and football (soccer), but eventually, she decided to focus on track and field. “I used to do everything. I even think I still have the javelin record,” she laughs. She’s right.
She credits her mother, Wilma, who is also Anguilla’s Director of Sport, for much of her success so far.
“She was passionate and patient,” Shara recalls. “If it was up to me, I’d have quit a long time ago. I’d always have an excuse: headache, tummy ache, or too tired. She made me stick to it until I got a scholarship.”
Shara excelled at the University of Florida, where she competed and between 2007 and 2010, racking up numerous medals and awards.
“If it was up to me, I’d have quit a long time ago… [My mom] was passionate and patient. She made me stick to it until I got a scholarship.”
Because Olympic rules prohibit an Anguillian Olympic Committee, Shara opted in 2010 to give up the colours of the country of her birth and represent Great Britain to realize her dream of competing in the London 2012 Games. Her joy at qualifying was overshadowed by controversy; that same year, American-born Tiffany Porter and Cuban Yamilé Aldama (among a few others) went the same route, prompting outrage from sections of the British public. The label “Plastic Brit” followed. Shara was hurt and angry.
“They didn’t even know my situation,” she says, “I don’t hear the term anymore, though. I think it was just a phase. Now, I enjoy being on the team, and the athletes love me.”
Shara silenced the critics, first by breaking the British indoor record in 2010, then smashing the 29-year-old outdoor long jump record during the 2012 Olympic trials. She also won the 2013 Diamond Race, tallying the most points in the 14-meet International Association of Athletics Federations’ (IAAF) Diamond League series.
Shara’s continued rise has coincided with the emergence of Zharnel Hughes, another prodigious talent from the island’s 35 square miles. Hughes pushed 6-time Olympic gold medalist and world record holder Usain Bolt to the wire in the 200m event at the New York Diamond League meet in June. Now, he has chosen to follow in Shara’s footsteps by representing Great Britain internationally, topping the field in World Championships qualifying in July.
Shara sees exciting times for Anguilla athletics.
“I’m impressed with Zharnel and how he’s progressing,” she says. “I just wish there were more athletes coming out of Anguilla.” Without proper facilities, that will be challenging, but Shara sees trailblazing successes like her own as the beginning. “Right now,” she explains, “I’m trying to establish myself… but I want to come and give back. It will require people like me or Zharnel, who understand what the athlete’s life is about, to share that knowledge.”
In the meantime, she finds time during her trips home—though they rarely happen more than once a year—to speak to young athletes. “My season is so hectic,” she says, “and long—from January to August.”
Shara confesses that she misses the food, from johnnie cakes and barbequed ribs to fish soup and stewed chicken, as well as the laid-back island life.
“I miss spending time with my family,” she says. “What also sucks is that I haven’t been home for Carnival in about 5-6 years! Championships are always in August.”
She’s set to miss yet another Summer Festival this year as she looks forward to competing in the World Championships in Beijing. If she gets on the podium, then it’ll be worth it for Shara, who has finished in the top 4 in every major meet so far this year. Her 6.95m leap in Doha, Qatar in March equals her personal best and is the third-longest jump in 2015. It also brings her closer to the 7.0m mark, which she’s been eyeing for a few years.
“In the past, the support I had added pressure… But now, [mentally] I feel like a brand new woman.”
It looks within reach. “I just need to get everything together and execute as I know I can,” Shara says. “I’ve surprised myself at how good of a shape I’m in after surgery [for her Commonwealth Games thigh injury]. I’m just happy to be healthy again and competing.”
Heading into another major Championship, Shara feels she’s shed the disappointments of the past few years and has overcome many mental barriers.
“I’ve taken some time to think and re-evaluate how I approach competitions,” she reflects. “I know I have the support. In the past, that support added pressure and was part of the reason I choked. But compared to before, I feel like a brand new woman.”
And just in time, too—because when she takes to competition on August 27th in Beijing, Shara will have 60 million Brits, along with all 13,000 here in Anguilla, cheering her on.