Oct. 11, 2004
Last Friday, Jamaican sprint sensation Aleen Bailey made a surprise visit to her alma mater, Vere Technical High School. There, greeted by deafening cheers and screams and hundreds of students begging for a few words or just an autograph, she presented a cheque for $100,000, or half the money given to her by the government for her recent performance at the Olympics this summer, to the school’s track programme.
Bailey, who was part of Jamaica’s gold-medal-winning women’s 4 x 100 metre relay team, is also remembered fondly for her act of selflessness after the 200 metre sprint won by teammate Veronica Campbell. At the end of that race, Aleen, the team’s de facto ‘vibes master’, grabbed Campbell, too stunned to react even after hearing she had won, and led her in a victory lap around the field. Although she too competed in the race, there was no telling that Bailey hadn’t herself won, so enthusiastic was she about her teammate’s win.
That’s just her personality though, honest, energetic, encouraging and selfless, and her gesture on Friday reinforced in the eyes of her former schoolmates just how special this lady is. After presenting the cheque to the school’s principal, Dr Henritta Stewart, Bailey went on to call for the school’s cook, Emily ‘Miss Millie’ Yettman, an often forgotten figure whom she says was like a mother to her while at Vere. As the students cheered and whistled, Miss Mille got a big hug and a special gift from Bailey, who later went to visit her former coach, Dwayne Jarrett. The Sunday Observer caught up with Aleen at Vere, where she shared with us her thoughts on the Olympics, winning gold, having a famous brother, and controversial former Jamaican track queen, Merlene Ottey.
OLC: How did you enjoy your first Olympics?
AB: It was amazing! The only time I’ve ever seen a crowd that big was at the Penn Relays and it was so amazing. We were away from home, but it felt like we were at home because the crowd was so welcoming and loving, and it didn’t matter what place we got, we had so much support as a team that it was wonderful.
OLC: What was the synergy like within the team?
AB: It was perfect. It was the perfect team, it was just like the Carifta team all over again. We basically grew up together, and yeah, there were a few older people, but the team was mostly us, who grew up together. It was like, all of us together again. We love each other, we mess with each other, have fun and it couldn’t have been better.
OLC: Was it hard being the sort of ‘vibes master’ for the team?
AB: I really wasn’t trying to be the ‘vibes master’, I was just trying to make sure we all were comfortable together cause I figured that over the years the teams weren’t together and so they didn’t win so I thought the only way for us to win this time was to have everybody on one accord so that’s what I was working on.
OLC: How did you feel at the end of the famous 200-metre race?
AB: I was like, we won! We all decided that we needed to hear the national anthem play at least twice, because over the years we haven’t heard the anthem as often as we should, and we knew it would be a wonderful feeling. We all went out there, but I knew she (Veronica Campbell) could win so I told her we gotta do this and she won and she was so overwhelmed!
OLC: But you didn’t win. weren’t you even disappointed that you didn’t medal in that race?
AB: No! I was just like, WE won! She (Veronica Campbell) won the gold medal, but it’s not just her medal, it’s for the whole country and the whole team, so I had to support her. We’ve been friends from high school, we worked together, we studied together, we trained together,
OLC: What was the funniest moment in Athens for you?
AB: The funniest thing at the village was Veronica practising how she would finish the 4×100. After the first race you should have seen her! She’d never done anything like that, never raised her hands in the air, so she was like ‘you guys, make sure we go out there and do our thing so I can do this!’ That was the funniest thing – it was hilarious watching her practice cause she did it about a hundred times and was like ‘this is how I’m going to do it’ over and over again. But it was just lots of fun. Sherone was amazing too, she also pushed and motivated us, cause Marion (Jones) had said something and Sherone was just determined to pass her, beat her, break the world record, anything, and I guess it rubbed off.
OLC: So how do you feel about your performance in Athens?
AB: I am very satisfied. I did extremely well. I didn’t expect to do so well, but I did, I mean, I got a gold medal in the relay, I placed fourth in the 200 metres, and I came fifth in the 100 metres among the best in the world, so that’s a big achievement.
OLC: Why are you giving away all this money? I mean, you earned it, and I’m sure you could find ways to spend it.
AB: Well, it will do a lot here because most of these kids are not from wealthy families, and most of them cannot afford a lot of stuff. When I was here I had the same problem until I got help, so I mean, if I can in any way make help to make sure that they are successful, .You don’t want these kids – who are so talented – get lost in the system and turn out to be something else. With help, I know they’ll succeed and do very well all round. You see, without Vere, I wouldn’t be where I am today, so I’m just here to share some of my fortune.
OLC: What are you going to do with the rest of the money?
AB: Well, I grew up in St Mary, the Baccaswood/Islington area, that’s where my mother still lives, and they were badly affected by Hurricane Ivan. I’ll probably donate the rest of the money to them.
OLC: Merlene Ottey is also a past Vere Tech student, when you met her in Athens, what did you think of her?
AB: Merlene is a very good person. We got to talk to her one-on-one, and she was very encouraging to us all through the Olympics. She was at the village with us, she talked to us, told us what to do, ’cause as you can imagine, we were nervous. She even told us that she’s never seen a team like ours and that she knew we were going to win, so all we had to do was go out and do our best. Her pep talks helped quite a bit.
OLC: There was no animosity?
AB: No. we asked her about it, and she said that since then she had talked to the people, everybody had apologised to each other and that it was behind her. So she’s not carrying that whole baggage with her anymore.
OLC: What sort of role would you say Dwayne Jarrett, your high school coach, played in your success today?
AB: He played a huge role. He wasn’t like a coach, he was more like a father. He made sure we were okay, he encouraged us, he got mad at us, just like a father would when we don’t do what he tells us to. In training, he made sure we were the best, and he did everything to the best of his ability.
OLC: What about your ‘blood’ family?
AB: My family has always been there for me. If my mummy (Maud Bailey) didn’t give up her guardianship to allow someone else make sure I got to where I’m at, I wouldn’t be here.
OLC: Is it hard having a famous older brother?
AB: Yes it is, because you have this shadow over you. ‘Fire man sister’ and people forget my name half the time. Lots of people only know me as ‘Capleton’s sister’ they don’t know me as Aleen. The gold medal has changed that a little, but I still get the regular stuff, but now it’s ‘Aleen Bailey, Capleton’s sister’. But it’s not too bad.
OLC: When you’re not training, how do you stay in shape?
AB: I don’t really! (laughs) When I’m not training I just pig out. I eat all sorts of things I’m not allowed to eat, like ice cream and chocolate and sugary foods, gravy that sort of thing. Now, it’s off-season but I’m training with Coach (Glen) Mills, so I’m doing aerobics and I’ve signed up for a kickboxing class. I start on Monday.
OLC: Any messages for young Vere athletes trying to make it like you?
AB: Listen to coach. He may be tough, but this (gold medal) is proof that toughness works and hard work pays off.
OLC: What’s next for Aleen Bailey?
AB: Well, I plan to get back into school (University of South Carolina in the USA) for January, finish my degree, and keep training and running. But the Olympics were great, and I’m looking forward to training more with the girls, ’cause next time around, we will be even harder to beat. I loved every minute in Athens. And the fact that Merlene was there was incredible too.