by Tom Utescher
The recent improvement in diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba benefitted two elite track athletes from this area as they participated in the Caribbean Scholastic Invitational on June 12 and 13. The meet, which draws blue chip high school standouts from many nations in the Caribbean basin, was held in Cuba for the first time after being staged in Puerto Rico for many years.
Brooklynn Broadwater of Springside Chestnut Hill Academy and Sarah Walker of Germantown Friends School, both rising seniors, were part of a 28-member American team assembled by the National Scholastic Athletics Foundation, which established the CSI in 2006.
Walker, a national-class middle distance runner, won the 800 meter event in Havana’s Caribbean Scholastic Stadium with a new personal record time of 2:05.79, the number-four time recorded by any U.S. high school runner this year. Broadwater, a sprinter and hurdler who won the 400 meter hurdles at the 2015 Penn Relays, finished second in that event down in Cuba (in 1:03.26) after rehabbing from a hamstring injury in May.
In addition, Walker ran the second leg and Broadwater handled the third leg in the U.S. team’s gold medal performance in the 4 x 400 meter relay.
Walker recalled, “One of the coaches said that for most of us, it would be our first time not anchoring a relay we were in, and it was true. That was pretty cool, because that means you have a really solid team.”
Walker ran a personal best split, going under 55 seconds for the first time on a relay leg at 54.9. With sophomore Lauryn Ghee of Chesapeake, Va. running the lead-off leg and with anchor-lap duties falling to junior Cassondra Hall of Warner Robins, Ga., the team’s time was 3:44.64.
The weather, according to Broadwater, was “hot and humid, but you could adjust to it.”
GFS head coach Rob Hewitt, who went along on the trip, noted, “There were different conditions; it would be hot and sticky, but the stadium was right near the ocean, and when some rain would come through, it cooled down for awhile.”
“It wasn’t too different from what we have at home in the summer,” Walker said. “The only thing different was that when it would rain, it would rain a lot for a short amount of time. In the stadium, they had built in sort of a moat or gutter outside of the track, and they had things slanted so that all the water would run off.”
Neither of the local athletes had to race on Friday, the first day of the invitational. They still spent much of their time at the track, cheering on their teammates.
On Saturday, Broadwater was up first, taking part in a preliminary heat in the 400 hurdles. Overall, her rehabbed hamstring held up well during the competition, but she related, “In the trial, I fell over the eighth hurdle, but I got up and kept running and I made it to the final.
From when I fell, my heel was hurting a little bit in the final, but I kind of just worked through it.”
On a chilly April day at the Penn Relays, Broadwater had turned in a gold-medal time of 1:00.69. Here she was second with a time that was somewhat slower, and it seems clear she wasn’t back at 100 percent capacity. Anna Cockrell, a junior from Charlotte, N.C., won the final with a U.S. number-two time of 59.37, and Leidis Hernandez of Cuba was third in 1:05.41.
In the weeks leading up to the trip, Broadwater’s training would’ve been different if she hadn’t needed to follow a rehab regimen for her hamstring.
She agreed with that, but said “I feel okay about what I did down there.”
In contrast to most meets, Walker found that her 800-meter contest was the longest footrace of the entire meet.
“There weren’t a lot of distance people, so it was interesting to watch how all the sprinters and jumpers were warming up around me,” she said. “They take pretty short warm-up runs, but they do lot of static and dynamic stretches.”
There was no heat racing in her event; everyone just went straight to the final. At the beginning of the month, she had set a PR of 2:06.43 in an invitational close to home, running without any real challenge for the last several hundred maters of the race. Her contest in Cuba went much the same way, with Walker pushing for a new top time pretty much on her own.
“The race started out kind of fast, then it settled down after 200,” she said. “Going up to the four [the end of the first of the two laps], I could sense that I was just going to have to go on from there without anyone pushing me. It was similar to other races I’ve had this spring.”
The runner up, almost seven seconds behind Walker at 2:12.62, was Cuba’s Lisneidys Lopez.
After competing on Friday and Saturday, the Americans jetted home the following day. They had first assembled in Miami back on Wednesday, June 10, for their flight into Havana. They had a practice session on Thursday, but also had some time to take in the sights and engage in a bit of cultural exchange.
“When people found out we were from America, they would come up and give us hugs,” Broadwater said. “They loved taking pictures together with us. It was a good experience going down and seeing how everything works down there.”
“They were really welcoming,” Walker said. “They had an opening ceremony next to the stadium at a sports school where a of the kids we competed against go to school. They had singers doing the Cuban national anthem and then they sang our national anthem, which they had learned to do in English. They had our flag and the Cuban flag next to each other, and one of our coaches told us to remember how significant that was, because they hadn’t been flown side-by-side for a long time.”
Walker noted that former Cuban Olympic sprinter Alberto Juantorena, the 200 and 400-meter gold medalist in 1976, spent a of time with the American party.
There was time for some traditional sightseeing in the “old city” of Havana (La Habana Vieja) and Broadwater was impressed by some of the majestic old buildings, such as the mid-18th Century Catedral de San Cristóbal.
Americans are used to seeing photos of the streets of Havana filled with “vintage” automobiles, and the American athletes noticed this, and more.
“I saw a lot of stray dogs, and some cats,” recounted Broadwater, who aspires to become a veterinarian. “There were people on horses, and there were people riding bikes that had sort of been made into taxis. There were lots of souvenirs, and everyone wanted to sell you stuff.”
She also observed, “The food was different; the hamburgers are different from what we have. The plumbing was different. Everything was pretty unique down there, I would say.”
As Walker put it, “It was sort of like going back in time. They didn’t have iPhones, or the newer kinds of sneakers and stuff that we have.
“I don’t think they have Nike there,” she went on, “so they really liked Nike stuff, and anything that said USA track and field. After the races it was kind of cool because everyone was trading their stuff. A lot of the Cuban athletes wanted to trade uniforms, so I have a full Cuban uniform and a jacket.”
Broadwater reported, “I got a uniform top, some shorts, and a long-sleeve shirt. They’d come up and point at our shirts or shorts and then point at their uniforms, so it was easy to tell that they wanted to trade.”
Walker said, “I take French in school and I don’t know a lot of Spanish, but you felt like you could connect to people because sports is such a universal thing. A few of the Cubans spoke English, and they helped us with some of the trading.”
The two Philly area athletes and Coach Hewitt had a lot of time to reflect on their experiences during their journey back to the States. Their connections through Miami were not very time-efficient to begin with, and with a long delay thrown in, they didn’t get home until around 4:00 A.M. on Monday.
In just a few days, they would have to head back south again, this time for the New Balance Outdoor Nationals in Greensboro, N.C. Walker was looking forward to performing in the three-day event (June 19-21) and added “We’ll also get to see our teammates from Cuba again, because almost all of them will be there.”