By Lincoln DePradine
Antigua and Barbuda has bestowed national hero status on a handful of citizens, including legendary former West Indies cricket captain Sir Vivian Richards, whose daughter and grandchild were in the audience Sunday at a Toronto event that brought together four Antiguan women that are being celebrated for a recent feat that has united the Caribbean nation behind them.
The four-member “Team Antigua Island Girls’’ – Elvira Bell, Christal Clashing, Samara Emmanuel and Kevinia Francis – now have “written themselves into the history of world sports’’, just like what has been done by global sporting stars like Jamaican Usain Bolt, Brazil’s Pele, American Michael Jordan and Canadian Wayne Gretzky, according to Daryll Matthew.
Matthew is the Antiguan government minister responsible for sports, culture, national festivals and the arts.
He was among a group at the Chelsea Hotel in Toronto on Sunday for a “meet and greet’’ and “conversation’’ with the four women, who created history by completing a 3,000-mile journey across the Atlantic Ocean in 47 days.
The Antiguans joined more than 27 other teams from around the world in the grueling Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge, a rowing race from the Canary Islands to Nelson’s Dockyard in English Harbour, Antigua.
The four became the first all-female Black team to represent Antigua and the Caribbean in the event.
The female racers are “trailblazers’’, said Ann-Marie Layne, consul general in Toronto for Antigua and Barbuda.
They also are “heroes’’ and “world-changers’’, added government minister Matthew. “We probably would never be able to unite our country, or any country for that matter, in the way that they have done.’’
Matthew noted that the race course was the route of the Middle Passage, in which many Africans lost their lives as they were being forcibly transported to be enslaved on sugar plantations in the Caribbean.
He said as Team Antigua Island Girls journeyed voluntarily in their “non-motorized vessel’’, he often wondered “if they felt the presence of the African ancestors who did not make it across. I often wondered if they felt protected by the souls of those persons’’.
The team’s Toronto visit, which included various speaking engagements, is part of an outreach initiative by members to share their story, and also coincides with a series of activities marking the 38th anniversary of independence of Antigua and Barbuda. Independence Day is November 1 and the theme of the observance is, “Embracing Our National Pride’’.
Matthew said he was “very proud’’ of Team Antigua Island Girls and their accomplishment, and commended them on behalf of the government of people of Antigua.
“You have been excellent ambassadors of this nation so far and I know that you will continue to keep our flag flying high,’’ he said to applause from the audience of not just Antiguan nationals but also diplomatic representatives from Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana and St Kitts and Nevis.
They also were complimented on the evening by former Ontario education minister, MPP Mitzie Hunter, and City of Toronto councillor Cynthia Lai.
In preparation for the race, Team Antigua Island Girls – none of whom ever rowed before – set out to raise US$150,000 and embarked on a rigorous nine-month training program that included gym workout and getting certified in areas such as ocean rowing, first aid and sea survival.
“It was a lot for us to learn,’’ admitted Bell, a learn-to-swim instructor and certified health coach. “Most of the time we were on our own, just figuring it out.’’
However, one person who was an inspiration, said Bell, was Sir Vivian Richards, cricket’s “Master Blaster’’.
“He’s just so amazing,’’ she said. “One of the things he said to us is that there is going to be naysayers out there. He said you’re going to do what you have to do and you’re going to motivate those same people that are against you, and change their minds and help bring them up in whatever they’re doing.’’
The Atlantic Challenge began in mid-December 2018 with the female racers returning to Antigua in January 2019, welcomed by thousands including children, who were allowed off school early for the occasion.
The racers recalled the waves of emotion they experienced, especially seeing parents, children and other relatives and friends, on arrival back on Antiguan soil.
“It was an exhilarating feeling,’’ said team captain Francis, a fitness trainer and cyclist who excels in basketball, martial arts and track and field.
Clashing remembered the feeling of pride, saying “the support from Antigua and Barbados was great’’.
“I’ve never seen Antigua and Barbuda so united and that was just incredible,’’ said Clashing, a triathlete and the first female swimmer to represent Antigua and Barbuda at the Olympics.
Emmanuel, a sailor by profession and a parent like two other teammates, cried on being reunited with her family.
The message of the team’s accomplishment, said Emmanuel, is that “we are so much better when we unite in the Caribbean’’.
Francis implored others to not allow “colour or race or sex to hold you back’’.
As part of the team’s post-race outreach, members are raising funds in support Cottage of Hope, an Antigua non-profit organization providing housing and other assistance to girls that have been abused, neglected or orphaned.
The name and image of Team Antigua Island Girls have been trademarked, giving members the right to control how their brand is represented and used.
The women are said to be considering developing a line of sportswear and an inspirational children’s book.