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Kirani James – resilience personified

It is human to take for granted accomplishments that are a fulfillment of potential. Accomplishments that we have come to expect from a genius, who by virtue of extraordinary talent and skill or exceptional work ethic or both, make light work of the uncommon. When an athlete is so proficient and dominant that he wins at every junior and youth level, we might take for granted the commitment to stay focused, to remain one of the best in the World for well over a decade, avoiding the pitfalls that are usual at that level of competitiveness.

Kirani James has won at CARIFTA GAMES (U17), COMMONWEALTH YOUTH GAMES, WORLD YOUTH CHAMPIONSHIPS, CARIFTA GAMES (U20), PAN-AMERICAN JUNIOR CHAMPIONSHIPS AND WORLD JUNIOR CHAMPOINSHIPS during his teenage years. This resume, by itself, is a complete and satisfactory career but is also pregnant with promise for even greater accomplishments at the senior level. He made the transition from the junior to the senior circuit, from the amateur ranks to being a professional athlete, look unremarkable by winning his first major global title in 2011 (the World Championships) and his second a year later (an Olympic Gold Medal). Kirani then went on to win Diamond League titles, featuring prominently on the global circuit to include a bronze medal in the 2015 World Championships and silver in the 2016 Olympics.

During that period Kirani’s rivalry with La Shawn Merritt brought new and keen interest to the 400m and in some meets it was the event audiences were most excited about. Commenting on the rivalry, Merritt has this to say, “We had many battles throughout the years. My Coach and I would get excited at the opportunity to train for the matchups. We knew Kirani was gong to bring his A game every time, so it made training more intense and that’s how I preferred it.” Merritt a former World and Olympic champion himself spoke about Kirani the man. “I respect the talent and the man. He’s had many ups and downs throughout life and is still fighting as the warrior he is. We brought out the best in one another for several years and I thank him for it. I would always wish him the best.”

One of the downs referenced by La Shawn manifested itself in 2017 after one of the ups. Under the leader of former Prime Minster, Dr Keith Mitchell, on April 08 the Grenada Athletics Stadium was renamed the Kirani James Athletics Stadium. The event was the inaugural Grenada Invitational where Kirani competed at home, as a professional, for the first time and in a stadium named after him. Reflecting on the momentous occasion and Kirani’s career Dr Mitchell recently offered, “The history of Grenada has recorded that our people have overcome and continue to triumph over many challenges. Kirani James embodies and puts on international display the resilience of the People of Grenada. As a son of Grenadian soil, I am not surprised by his ability to excel despite his many challenges on and off the track, to become one of the most decorated 400m runners ever. We are proud of his achievements.”

After winning the 400m race at the Grenada Invitational in 2017, in front of an enthusiastic and extremely loud home crowd, Kirani had to seek medical attention after experiencing some discomfort. Thus began a series of tests over a period of months that eventually led to the discovery that Kirani James had contracted an immune system disorder known as Graves disease and had to undergo treatment that eventually led to a regiment of medication that he must take for the rest of his life. The treatment and impact of the medication certainly affected him, resulting in a 5th place finish in the World Championships in 2019. In that same year he lost his mother, Pamela James, with whom he shared an exceptional bond. Olympic Gold Medalist, Glenroy Gilbert (who is of Grenadian parentage) best sums up what Kirani had to endure in 2019. “Kirani has shown incredible resilience in the face of adversity that would have crippled most people. As a former athlete and now Head Coach of Athletics Canada, resilience is one of the key pillars of our program and an athlete’s ability to rise after so many setbacks is a sign of a true champion. Kirani’s ability to remain at the top of his sport despite the many challenges he’s had to face is a true testament of his greatness, not only as an athlete but also as a human being.”

At this stage one could have easily excused Kirani if he had decided to call it a day; but his love of country and desire to represent would not allow him to. His first agent, Renaldo Nehemiah, a former professional athlete (track and field, American football) witnessed that desire firsthand. “Kirani was only motivated to represent Grenada with all his heart. I knew that he was special. He would give every ounce of his being to make his country proud. That pride has enabled him to become one of the most accomplished 400m runners in history. And I was blessed to witness each milestone.”

Kirani, outstanding human being, was not just a great ambassador for and passionate about his place of birth, he is aware of his ambassadorial duties for the Caribbean as a whole and for the sport of track and field. “Kirani embodies everything that is great about Caribbean athletes – he is humble, focused and consistent,” offers four-time Olympic medalist, Trinidadian Ato Boldon when asked to comment about the Grenadian track and field phenom. Boldon added, “He’s had his share of life challenges and yet every time you see him, he is happy and sharing positive vibes- first round, semifinal or final, win lose or draw. One of the things I have enjoyed in covering his entire career is how he will shake hands with every single person he runs against. He is as classy as they come,” concluded Boldon, who is now one of the premier broadcasters covering track and field internationally.

The athletic greatness and the resilience of Kirani James was manifested in 2021 and 2022 when he won medals at two global meets – the Olympics (bronze) and the World Championships (silver) respectively.

Preparing for another chance at global glory – the 2023 World Championships, another tragedy struck. This time Harvey Glance (also an Olympic Gold Medalist) Kirani’s Coach, mentor and dear friend died suddenly after collapsing during a practice sessions. One can speculate about the wave of emotions, the confusion and the despair Kirani might have endured and might still be enduring since the passing of Harvey. But an insight into the quality of the man is aptly provided by famed American Broadcaster Lewis Johnson as he covers the 2023 World Championships in Budapest. “As I waited for Kirani James to arrive in the mixed zone for his first global championship interview since the passing of his long-time coach, I found myself going back and forth about, not just the words I would use, but the tone with which to ask him about his first-round run. Do I bring up Glance’s death or not? You see, I have a non-stop massive responsibility to be aware that the relationships I have developed over the years, in sports, can have two faces. There is the ‘off-the-field’ personality of those I may cover, then the ‘in-game’ demeanor that can be very different with some. It’s critical to understand, respect and respond to these differences, especially in high stakes global championships where the pressure to perform is at its highest. It should not have been a surprise to see Kirani’s trademark poise and professionalism on the track and in his demeanor as he came up the steps to my position. That put me at ease to ask a few proper questions on his run and provide an open mic for him to address the way he intends to honor his coach of 13 years, the man he called a father-figure. James was forthright, introspective and clear about his intentions on the track, and in my opinion, he will absolutely continue to honor Harvey Glance, his family watching from Gouyave and the rest of the Spice Island for the remainder of his career.”

When the American thoroughbred racehorse, Secretariat retired from competitive racing it was discovered that he had an enlarged heart almost three times the size of a normal heart for a horse. It is believed this condition accounted for the outstanding and record-breaking career of arguably the greatest horse to ever take to the track. Maybe we will, in time, find out that there is a medical condition or some other anomaly  that has made Kirani into the man and athlete he is.

This story would be incomplete without the thoughts of family members of Kirani and Gary James when asked to provide a more personal look at his brother. “Often times we hear people speak about never giving up and keep pushing through it and if there were to be a definition for either, there should be a picture of Kirani next to it. As an athlete who has won it all he has had every reason to call it quits since he is continuously faced with challenges, yet he keeps going.” Gary has also represented Grenada as an athlete (basketball) and is now a physical education specialist after studies in Cuba, offers a perspective not only as a close family member but also as a competitor. “Growing up he has always shown determination and strength, but he continues to surpass our expectations. When his coach passed away in June I told our sister, ‘Hey I think this is it you know, I believe he would call it a day.’ Knowing how close he was to his coach this is what I expected, but to our surprise a few weeks after we heard, ‘I am going to the World Championships.’ As baffled and shocked as we were, the most we could do was support him 100% and more if possible.” Gary concluded with this solid piece of universal advice. “Kirani James should be the example every athlete, student, every boss, every worker should follow. No matter what obstacles come your way keep pushing and you will come out on top. A true inspiration to us all, A Grenadian Hero!”

The results of the final of the 40m at the 2023 World Championships have no bearing on Kirani’s legacy. Making it to another global final, his 6th in six attempts, the fact that he has transcended an entire generation of athletes, the fact that he continues to display exemplary character, face up to all challenges without blame or excuses, makes Kirani James the ultimate winner. He is resilience, determination and grace personified!

By Dexter Mitchell  

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