After much controversy over not representing Trinidad and Tobago at the Olympics, and going to the courts to fight for her beliefs, Thema Williams has risen above it all. “The Olympic journey was the most mentally, physically, and emotionally challenging part of my life. In 2014, I remember being so eager to train that I asked my mother if I could put school aside to pursue my Olympic dream. She said, ‘You have two more months, then exams. Do your exams, and anything can happen after that.’ The day after CAPE was over I was on a plane to Michigan, where I trained at Geddert’s Twistars USA for two years, en route to Brazil 2016.
“I trained 23–32 hours weekly, and stayed with a host family, the Hills. I struggled with homesickness, and some days I was absolutely drained, but I knew where I wanted to go.” She qualified for the Olympic trials at the age of 19. Then her world was shattered. According to a Guardian report on the 28th of April 2016, “Williams was pulled out of the Rio Test Event… as the Trinidad and Tobago Gymnastic Federation felt she was not physically fit to compete following a report from Williams’ coach John Geddert. Williams was replaced by Marisa Dick, who flew from Canada… to Brazil. Dick created history by becoming the first T&T gymnast to qualify for the Olympics.”
Williams said, “It was difficult to conceptualise that all my hard work had not paid off. Beyond myself, all the others who had invested time, effort, and financial support in my Olympic dream had also been let down. Although I’m not normally emotional or dramatic, I remember calling my mother and crying, and my best friend, Chloe, in Michigan, and crying with her on the phone. It was heart-wrenching. Time was my major healing factor,” she confided. “It was weird, falling back into real life. After being in a ‘program’ for two years, I felt out of place. The toughest part was understanding that everything happens for a reason, and when I was able to grasp that concept, I began moving forward again.”
She doesn’t have any regrets with respect to the controversy, but thinks her situation has shed light on “a lot of injustices that exist in sport in Trinidad and Tobago, and has encouraged athletes to become more vocal about their concerns.” “Realistically, the pursuit of the goal is where the lessons are learned. We are all products of our experiences, so I never truly lost out; I have grown through my experiences, and I would not trade that for anything.”
I wanted to know if she looked at any of the Olympics that year. “I watched a few things, but with a different perspective. The picture-perfect image of sport and the Olympics was somewhat now tainted for me.” Williams continued, “This controversy never truly died down, since people still approach me in public and offer support. The support I received was overwhelming, and I could not have asked for a better #TeamThema. Gymnasts from other countries also showed their support. The post-Olympic journey was about finding my place, and getting my bearings all over again.”
She is currently pursuing her education at The University on the West Indies, studying Statistics and Economics, while coaching at two local gymnastics clubs, and is a dancer at Deb’s Dancetics. I queried her sudden entry into the World of Dance competition. “Deborah Knowles—owner of Deb’s Dancetics—and my gymnastics coach and dance choreographer mentioned it to me in 2017. Despite the rigors of school and coaching, I thought it over, then hesitantly jumped on board, figuring the opportunity might not come again. I’ve been dancing as long as I have been doing gymnastics, which made it a smooth transition. Entering a dance competition seemed natural.”
Williams went on to win the upper division at the World of Dance Trinidad and Tobago. “It was surreal, quite amazing, since I’d been going through mid-term examinations at the time, and it was my first dance competition.” She represented our country at the Championships in Los Angeles in July, gaining the highest place of the Trinbago contingent. She placed 6th among the 25 competitors from around the world with her dance, called ‘Wakanda’. This talented young woman still says her first love is gymnastics, but she is anxious to see where the world of dance can take her. “Career-wise I’m still looking into different avenues… who knows what the future holds?”