Debbie Ferguson-McKenzie and Savatheda Fynes-Coke were fresh out of high school, Chandra Sturrup was winning collegiate titles at Norfolk State University in Norfolk, Virginia, and Pauline Davis-Thompson was doing her best to coerce Eldece Clarke to come out of retirement and aid the relay cause.
The vision was an Olympic gold medal and the time period was the early ‘90s.
It took two Olympiads for the dream to be realized, but it showed that anything is possible for Bahamian track and field and started a renaissance of the sport at the highest level globally for The Bahamas. It’s been 20 years since that historic gold medal-winning run at the Sydney Olympic Games by The Bahamas’ Golden Girls – Fynes-Coke, Sturrup, Davis-Thompson and Ferguson-McKenzie, in that order. Clarke was the substitute.
The times in successive years of 1999 and 2000, in winning gold at the world championships and Olympics, 41.92 and 41.95 seconds, respectively, still stand today as the two fastest times for any female quartet in the one-lap relay in Bahamian history. The actual 20-year anniversary of the golden run in Sydney, Australia, was yesterday.
Davis-Thompson said whereas the original plan was for the quintet to do something grand and celebrate
together among the Bahamian people, COVID-19 swooped in and disrupted those plans. Just she and Clarke are in The Bahamas, and both had a subdued celebration yesterday, taking photos by parliament and just recognizing the occasion and reminiscing on what transpired 20 years ago.
To date, it is arguably the greatest race in Bahamian history.
Producing five women who were running really fast during that time, having three of them make the final of the women’s 100m at the Sydney Olympic Games, The Bahamas went on to win gold in the women’s 4×100 meters (m) relay at those same Olympics in 41.95 seconds. Jamaica, led by the grande dame of track and field Merlene Ottey, as she is called, finished second in 42.13 seconds, and the United States, anchored by the drug-tainted Marion Jones, settled for the bronze in 42.20 seconds.
“It was just our time,” said Davis-Thompson yesterday. “I had that vision from the early ‘90s and the original plan was to win it in 1996. I called Eldece and told her that she had to come out of retirement. She was a bit skeptical, but I told her it was my vision and she had to do it – come train with me in Atlanta and let’s make it happen. Let’s go win this Olympic gold medal. I felt it in my heart and I felt it in my entire body.”
Davis-Thompson said it certainly wasn’t an easy process, from standing on street corners here on New Providence garnering support to training intensely and aggressively to produce the desired times. The Bahamas’ Golden Girls shocked the world and won silver behind the United States in the women’s 4x100m relay at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. It was totally unexpected at the time, but it proved to the world that they were coming. Initially, it was anticipated that they could make the final and contend for a medal but the silver was expected to be a long shot, particularly with nations like the United States, Jamaica, France, Russia, Nigeria and Great Britain competing.
After that, the team was a disappointing sixth at the 1997 World Championships in Athens, Greece, but then bounced back two years later and shocked the world again, winning gold at the 1999 World Championships in Seville, Spain. It was a prelude of things to come for 2000, and almost every Bahamian could remember where they were and what they were doing when they crossed the finish line first in Sydney for Olympic gold.
Davis-Thompson, herself, is the gold medalist from the 200m at those Olympics, and celebrated her personal anniversary for that feat three days ago. She crossed the finish line in second place in that race but was awarded the gold medal years later after Jones was stripped for doping.
Reminiscing on the relay, she said she just ran as hard as she could on that third leg, following Ferguson-McKenzie to the finish line. She could be seen on videos of the race, behind Ferguson-McKenzie, leaping for joy after she realized they had won.
“I wanted that medal so bad and I just wanted Debbie to know that I was right there with her,” she said. “I just knew that we had to get it done. Our country was depending on us. The Americans were talking smack and I wanted to beat them in front of the entire world. When we did it in 1999, they said it was a fluke, but here we were in 2000, coming back to do it again. I wanted them to stand at attention and listen to our national anthem. I remember looking up at the flag at the medal ceremony and I was so excited to see it at the top where it should be, flying high. I just want to congratulate my golden sisters on a job well done and I’m just looking forward to many more years.”
Helping to commemorate the occasion, and as a sign of the COVID-19 times, the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture created masks for the Golden Girls, signifying the 20th anniversary of the golden run. The masks are emblazoned with the inscription “242 Golden Girls 20th Anniversary”, along with the Bahamian flag.
“I’m just in complete amazement that it’s been 20 years,” said Davis-Thompson. “Time waits on no man. We were brought together by our patriotism, our love for The Bahamas. That was one of the things that really fueled us. We just made a pledge that it would be the relay that would galvanize the Bahamian people and we all made a commitment to see it through and make it work. The goal was always to win the gold and we did it. We wanted to set the pace and the standard for the athletes who were coming up behind us, so they could receive that financial support in the future without having to be on the street corners begging for money like we were – this was for them. This was for the Bahamian people,” she exclaimed.
At the moment, Ferguson-McKenzie, 44, is an assistant coach at the University of Kentucky, serving under Head Coach Rolando “Lonnie” Greene, another Bahamian. Fynes-Coke, 45, lives and coaches college athletics in New Jersey, and Sturrup, 49, coaches high school athletics in Raleigh, North Carolina. Former International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) Council Member Davis-Thompson, 54, is a consultant with the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture and is busy writing her autobiography, which she plans to release next year. Clarke, 55, is the Director of Sports Tourism in the Ministry of Tourism.
“When you do things like this, you never do it for a reward. You do it to galvanize support from your country and you do it to motivate others,” said Davis-Thompson. “A new generation of athletes came along, but it’s unfortunate that it’s been 20 years and our record is still standing. It needs to go. It should have been broken by now, and I feel like we had the girls to do it. When records are broken, it shows progress, and for various reasons, we haven’t gotten there. I’m hoping that we get back on the podium very soon. We have the athletes to put us there – we just have to make it happen. There are a number of things that haven’t happened since and in order for us to progress as a country, those things need to happen.”
Davis-Thompson didn’t go into detail as to what all those things are but when one does a post-mortem of the event, no Bahamian women’s relay team has made a final at the Olympics since. They did so at the world championships, going as far as a silver in the women’s 4x100m relay in Berlin, Germany, in 2009, but never again at the Olympics.
Additionally, the Golden Girls never got to utilize the parcels of land that were granted to them by the government of The Bahamas in 2000. According to reports, infrastructural work in that particular area in western New Providence is ongoing.
Be that as it may, Davis-Thompson said they are indeed grateful to be celebrating 20 years of such an historic undertaking and are looking forward to many more years in the future.
Along with Shaunae Miller-Uibo, The Bahamas’ Original Golden Girls are the only women to ever run under 11 seconds in the 100m in Bahamian history.
Sturrup owns the national record of 10.84 seconds; Fynes and Ferguson-McKenzie are both timed at 10.91 seconds; Clarke has stopped the clock at 10.96 seconds; and Davis-Thompson has a personal best of 10.97 seconds. Miller-Uibo is the sixth-fastest Bahamian woman in history at 10.98 seconds, done this year.