BAJAN TO DE BONE: After beating odds, Akela eyes Rio gold
SPORTING CIRCLES are abuzz with the name Akela Jones.
The din is the impetus driving the athlete’s resolve to make Barbados proud when she competes at the August Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
She is as keen to excel as so many Barbadians, her former local coaches, her Kansas State University coach Cliff Roberto and her family are to see her standing in the gold position on the medal podium.
When this 21-year-old prospective Olympian, who has been chalking up victory after victory in her international career, says: “I really want to do it for Barbados,” it is a resolve coming from someone who has beaten the odds to make it. Those who know her say she was given a lemon and made lemonade.
Akela signalled her athletic prowess at age eight as a pupil of the Hilda Skeene Primary School when she excelled in the Barbados national team competing in the Primary Schools Caribbean Championships.
At home to prepare for the Barbados National Championships in athletics, she shared her perspective on Barbadians’ response to what she is doing to blaze a trail on the international scene.
“I think Barbados knew that I had something special from a young age. Everybody knew my potential and they knew that I needed to get the right development,” Akela said.
She is the ninth of her late mother’s ten children and circumstances caused her to spend her formative years in the Camp Wood Children’s Home in St Philip, later transferring to Sterling Children’s Home in the same parish.
Without bitterness or embarrassment she talked about being raised in this institutional environment and with a sense of enjoyment, saying: “It was an advantage.
“I had more than just my biological siblings. I had people in the children’s home that played with me all day and I considered they were my sisters and brothers.”
She adores her natural siblings and the bond between them is strong, though she admitted: “We did not grow up in the same generation or in the same home.”
Life in the children’s home was a mixture of “fun” and “struggle”, but Akela chooses to talk only about the fun as she tells you her childhood was full of it.
“I grew up with a lot of people that I could interact with all the time.”
There were “aunties” who believed in her and encouraged her – one of the reasons that in adulthood she exudes a confidence built through that association. There was also the support of family and teachers at the Springer Memorial School who believed in her and demonstrated a commitment to her development in a way which helped her “to evolve as a woman”.
“I guess that’s how I got such an approachable personality,” said the likeable six-footer whose broad smile lights up any room.
She counts herself lucky to have gained entry to Kansas State University and to find people there who have her best interest at heart. It is why she is so keen to show off the island to two of them – Kansas City University coaches Cliff Rovelto and his wife Karol, who have accompanied her on this visit. Hours are being spent training at the National Stadium under the supervision of Cliff and Karol’s watchful eyes.
Akela acknowledges her “spectacular” coaches along the way, from her games teacher in primary school to National Sports Council coaches, teachers at the Springer Memorial School and now Rovelto, a member of the US Olympic coaching team.
Off the track her nose is buried in the books as she works to acquire a degree in criminology with a minor in political science that she so badly wants. She has a point to prove.
“I want to work with kids in the juvenile justice system; help them to reintegrate into the society and not back into the pipeline system; to be something better than what society is pushing them to be.
“I want to help kids to maximise their full potential, to turn around and show the society they are better than what the society thinks they are.”
Reaching out and helping young people going down the wrong path to be somebody and be somebody big is a big part of the mission she has set herself.
As one who survived her own Waterloos, Akela said: “I want to be an example to them. I’ve been through stuff I don’t want to discuss here. But I want to show them life is limitless and everything that happened before, you can turn it around.”
Throughout the interview the Barbadian athletic star effortlessly lapsed from a Bajan accent to a polished “English” accent, unconsciously so.
“My grandmother always tell me dat I got one ah de rawest Bajan accents,” she said. “That is because I am a Bajan to the bone and my accent always comes out.
“I like to talk raw. When I am overseas I have to put on this modest English accent cause I have to speak pure English but when I come back home it is raw.
“I say there is a time and place for everything. When you are in Rome you do as the Romans do.”
She is in the fourth year in college and has long made the adjustment to college life. No longer is she having the kind of emotions that at the beginning caused her to plead with her “mum” not to let her remain in the United States for so long.
Mum is Marlene Hall, the woman who along with Hall’s mother, veteran sports personality Kathy Harper-Hall, took Akela under her wings six years ago and helped her to refocus.
“Mum is my role model; she is my hero; she knows how to show love to a person and that is exactly what I needed at the time. I know I have been on the right path ever since and she has guided me every step of the way.”
Does she want a family of her own? Definitely, with no less than four children. “I’ve got to do big. I don’t know what I would do with one sibling – boring. I can’t do that to my kids,” she said.
For now, it is merely an idea lurking somewhere in the back of her mind. Her immediate priorities are the Olympics, “getting my degree and taking care of my family”.
The childhood tomboy is now the fashionista who relishes occasions that allow her to flaunt her chic style, providing release from mundane track clothes. At 6 ft 2 inches, she refuses to rate her fashion image at the level of those tall girls lacking confidence in themselves.
“I have got to own my height when I dress – full of character, full of life.” Indeed she is making up for those days when as “the ninth child living in a children’s home, outfits did not come regular and sometimes I got some passed down to me”.
See her off the sporting field and she is more than likely popping in white, her favourite colour, with expertly made-up face and a hairstyle that turns heads.
To Akela, being Bajan is “extraordinary”.
“It is like an advantage in life. Just saying you are a Bajan, you have just elevated yourself five notches in the world,” she said.