BY ELLIOTT DENMAN
of IAAF magazine
NEW YORK CITY - As Aliann Pompey
sprints through her "interval" training sessions at Van Cortlandt Park Stadium in the Bronx, she is an unknown figure to the joggers sharing the track with her. But her anonymity may soon be endangered. The 24-year-old Guyana citizen, a Bronx resident and Manhattan College graduate, has
seen her developing talents and growing list of achievements put her on the list of track
and field's emerging international celebrities.
is ridiculously big in Guyana," Pompey knows. "We have some good boxers, footballers and cyclists, too. Even some pretty good squash players." Thanks to Pompey, however, the extended Guyanese community - some 700,000 at home in the South American nation, and perhaps an equal number dispersed through the United States, Canada and elsewhere - now has much to cheer about in track and field, as well.
When Pompey won the Commonwealth Games women's 400-meter championship with a 51.63-second performance at Manchester, England, July 28, it represented her homeland's greatest track and field achievement in 68 years. Not since Dr. Phil Edwards, a New York University graduate running for the then-British Guiana, took the gold medal in the 880-yard run in 1934, had a Guyanese track and field
athlete won a gold medal in the Commonwealth Games.
"This is one of our greatest
moments of glory," said Brentmold Evans,
the Guyana consul general in New York, where some 250,000 of Guyanese heritage reside.
"It will do so much for us. It will infuse a new spirit in our youth. It will show them
that they can reach great achievements, too." "Oh my gosh, what
you have done is wonderful. Oh man, this is great. You have done something wonderful for your country," he told her in a congratulatory phone call. Guyana president Bharrat
Jhagdeo had already called her in Manchester. Flanked by Venezuela and Surinam (once Dutch Guiana) on South America's northeast coast, British Guiana was a British colony from 1831 to 1966. The independent nation of Guyana was declared on May 26, 1966 but much of its history has been marked by political, ethnic and economic strife.
"Her (Pompey's) wonderful achievement is something positive and important for our people;
it will help to take the focus away from our
problems, it will bring us together," said Evans. Deborah and Leon Pompey, her parents, emigrated from Guyana to New York State's capital region 14 years ago, seeking a better life. At Cohoes, N.Y. High School. Aliann became an outstanding but still little-known track
and field athlete. As a senior in 1995, she won the New York State girls 400-meter title in 54.1.
"Aliann didn't run a lot of races in high school, so nobody
really knew much about her until latter
part of her senior season," said Joe Ryan, the mathematics director of the Nanuet, N.Y. school district who doubles as assistant track coach at Manhattan College. "I had started recruiting her when she was still running 57 seconds (for the 400)," said Ryan. "And she really appreciated that. By the time she graduated, everybody
in the country was after her, but by that
time she was signed and sealed by Manhattan College.
"She was still very raw when she got to Manhattan, and she wasn't used to running indoors at all. By her sophomore year, she finally began to realize what training
was all about." But a broken
bone in her leg incurred in a Nebraska meet - "she basically was pushed from behind and went flying," said Ryan - put her career on hold. When Pompey returned to racing, she was better than ever, and capped the comeback
with a 52.21-second
victory in the 400 at the 2000 NCAA Indoor Championships at the University of Arkansas.
"That extra year really helped her to mature and to improve in every way," said Ryan. She graduated from Manhattan in 2000 with a degree in business administration and is still there working toward a masters degree in finance.
Steady progress has marked her
international racing career, too. She was a finalist in the 400 at the 1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg; a quarter-finalist at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, and a semifinalist at the 2001
World Championships in Edmonton.
to home, she's won the 400 at the Holmdel International Meet in New Jersey the past two years. The
Commonwealth Games performance, however, dwarfed all her previous achievements. After setting a career-best time of 51.34 - which was also a national record for
Guyana - in the semifinals, she won the gold medal in dramatic fashion.
first four runners crossed the finish line within 18/100ths of a second of each other.
But Pompey got there first
in 51.63, edging Scotland's Lee McConnell (51.68); Jamaica's Sandie Richards, the 1998 Commonwealth champion (51.79) and Jamaica's Allison Beckford
(51.81.) "I pretty much won it
right at the wire," said Pompey. "Around the (final) turn, I was just third or fourth. But I never gave up. This was the final and so much was at stake."
This victory will open more doors to her. She's
been invited to the Grand Prix meet in Helsinki, August
23-24. She'll be cheered as a national heroine at the Barry Marsay Games in Georgetown, Guyana, at the end of August. She hopes to return to Europe to compete for the Americas team in the World
Cup final, in Madrid, Sept. 20-21. And the Athens Olympic Games are just two years away. "I hope it all snowballs," she said.
Her support team consists of Ryan, once an international sprinter for Ireland, who directs her workouts, and trainer Tom Spiridellis, who provides
free physiotherapy. After returning
from a recent trip, she was seated at a favorite Jamaican restaurant in her Bronx neighborhood, for her usual dish of oxtail soup, rice and peas.
"The waitress came over to me
, and said 'I was beginning to wonder about you.
Where've you been? That was until I picked up the newspapers (local Caribbean publications) and read the story.' "So now I know who you really are.'' "My question is why did
SN (Starbroek News, a leading newspaper in Guyana) not see fit to publish a full-page picture of Aliann Pompey after she won our first Commonwealth Games gold medal as an independent nation," wrote an irate reader, Imran Khan, in
a recent edition.
Neville Denny, senior vice president of Guyana's Amateur Athletics Association, said that that her Commonwealth gold medal "would give a boost
to athletics, and kids (who) might want to emulate her performance." "Aliann is a very humble person," said Ryan,
"but a lot of people are going to know who she is, and pretty soon, too."
Women in Sports
by Peter Gambaccini
Her Métier is Running
Aliann Pompey On the Fast Track
9 - 15, 2003
In the world of track and field, Aliann Pompey has been underestimated since she first materialized
at Manhattan College's Riverdale campus in the late 20th century. But Pompey was impossible to overlook in 2000, when, from
10 meters behind at the midway point in the 400-meter run at the NCAA Indoor Championships, she ran down Miki Barber of South
Carolina to become Manhattan's first-ever female national collegiate track titleholder.
And in 2002, against the best that Britain and other track powers could muster, Pompey took
the 400-meter gold medal at the Commonwealth Games, upsetting the favorite, former world indoor champion Sandi Richards of
Jamaica. Pompey's Commonwealth triumph resulted in her being named Guyana's 2002 Female Athlete of the Year and sent her back
to her homeland for "a homecoming celebration that lasted a whole week," she beams. "I met with a lot of schoolchildren and
did a lot of TV shows and radio interviews. I was the first female to win Commonwealth gold and the second person ever from
Guyana. The first was Phil Edwards [an 880-yard runner] 68 years ago."
On January 25, Jearl Miles-Clark, a two-time Olympic gold medalist for the U.S. in the 4 x
400 relay, came from Tennessee to New York's Armory Track & Field Center with the publicized goal of smashing the world
and American records in the 500-meter run. Not one pundit suggested that Aliann Tabitha Omalara Pompey, now a Bronx resident
and a Manhattan College MBA candidate, was on hand to do anything more than fill out the field behind Miles-Clark. The Tennessean
seemed to have the race well in hand through 400 meters until, sure enough, Pompey swooped past and jetted to the finish line
more than a full second in front. Taciturn and deadpan, Pompey declared, "I try not to go out in a race thinking about second
Joe Ryan, who has coached Pompey for seven years, first perceived her as "very quiet, extremely
quiet," adding, "Your initial impression upon meeting her would be 'there's no way that this girl is an athlete.' However,
having said that, when she is on the track, she's an absolute tiger. There's a real contrast between the person you see on
the track and off of it. It's very, very pronounced. She's the most humble athlete I've ever coached, and in the sprinting
game, that's very, very unusual. But when that gun goes off, she's kind of like a fighter pilot. There's a real, real fire
in her eyes. It's fantastic to see."
It's not just her lack of swagger that makes Pompey an anomaly among 400-meter stars. Pompey
is 5-6 but weighs only 106 pounds. Miles-Clark, the leading American, is an imposing 5-7 and 132 pounds, the same size as
Ana Guevara of Mexico, the top 400-meter athlete in the world in 2002. Marie-Jose Perec of France, the 1992 and 1996 Olympic
gold medalist in the 400, was a powerfully long-legged 5-11.
It's her "scrawny" size that drew Pompey, now 25, into track in the first place. She's the
oldest of eight children in a family that moved from Guyana to the Albany County town of Cohoes in 1992. Her sister Allison
was a track star in Cohoes. "Everyone knew her. They used to think she was the reason I started track," explains Pompey, who
makes clear that the reason was "I was really light in high school. The doctor told my dad I need physical activity, maybe
to get out more and put more weight on."
So, at the end of her junior year, Pompey joined her sister on the track team. Her success
was stunning and virtually instantaneous. Ask her when she first realized she had talent in the sport and she'll mention the
qualifying meet for the New York State Championships her senior year, when, for the first time, she beat her sister, in a
200-meter race. "I said, 'Wait a minute. She's been good all these years. This is her thing.' Maybe there's a little bit more
to this than just running around in an oval." Pompey went on to win the 400 at the state championship. "I was the first person
in my high school to do that," she says, smiling at the memory and adding, "I haven't put on much weight, but what I did put
on was muscle." Meanwhile, Pompey was a happy bargain for Manhattan's track program, which had signed her when, recalls Ryan,
"there really wasn't any indication that something like that championship was going to happen."
Most of Pompey's major wins in the 400 have come in nerve-rackingly dramatic come-from-behind
fashion. She once vowed to change that tactic, but now demurs, insisting she has little choice. "It's not a tactic as much
as it is a running style," she says. "I'm not a true sprinter. I can only go out in the 200 at a certain pace and maintain
for the last 200." Miles-Clark has competed well in the 200, and Perec actually won the 200-meter gold in Atlanta in '96,
but Pompey realizes that, for herself, "I'm more of an endurance runner than a speed runner. I've tried going out faster before,
and the last 200 was truly horrible. It's just best, basically, to go out at a comfortable pace, and I finish well." She's
not a distinctive 400-meter "stylist" by choice, in her words: "It's not like I'm trying to do something new. It's just the
way my body's built."
Her size may actually hold the key to her track success. "If she's with girls that are much
larger, over the last 50 meters she's probably going to beat them," Ryan says. "She doesn't generate as much lactic acid as
the bigger sprinter. Consequently, she's fatiguing a lot less over the last part of the race."
Pompey can be spotted doing hill work in Van Cortlandt Park or other parts of Riverdale. An
eager trainer, she runs in Manhattan's Jadwin Gym track in the winter, but in warmer weather will sprint on Columbia's Wien
Stadium track, near the north end of Inwood Park. Ryan, who says that after seven years Pompey "can almost read my mind,"
says his biggest challenge may be getting her "to back off from working too hard. That's where injuries come."
Having begun running somewhat belatedly, with modest expectations, Pompey relishes her success
at the world-class level. "It's been really good. Everybody has a low moment in their lives," she observes. "There have actually
been some times when I really felt that the only thing I had going for me at times was track, whether that was realistic or
But running "took a back seat" to her education until she suffered her first big injury, a
stress fracture in her tibia, near the knee, after being tripped in a meet in Nebraska in 1998. "I was stubborn," she recalls.
"I was running on it until I couldn't bear the pain, and I had to sit out a whole year. That really hurt." And she learned
how important track was to her—the ordeal left her "completely distraught." She recalls, "Track was this big thing for
me all of the sudden. I thought I wouldn't be able to do it anymore."
But in 2003, she's as good as she's ever been, and will compete for Guyana in the World Championships
in Paris this August. Recovering and returning to the track, says Pompey, "I knew I was really blessed to be doing this because
it's something that I like. It's like I'm playing a game for a job now."
POMPEY WINS GOLD MEDAL AT THE COMMONWEALTH
Former Jasper Breaks Guyana’s 68-Year Medal Drought
On Saturday in the semi-finals, Pompey was
slow to release in the starting blocks but would increase her speed to set a new national record with a time of 51.34 seconds
for a second place finish. In the finals, the 2000 Olympian roared to victory as the Manchester crowd watched in amazement
as she surpassed the favorite Scotland’s Lee McConnell and Jamaica’s Sandie Richards in the final seconds of the
“For the last 20 meters my eyes were
kind of closed. I couldn’t see anything. I was going by the crowd’s reaction,” said Pompey.
The silver medal was awarded to McConnell (51.68
seconds) and Richards received the bronze medal (51.79 seconds).
Pompey currently resides in New York City and she continues to train at Manhattan College under
the direction of sprinter coach Joe Ryan.
POMPEY WINS GOLD MEDAL AT THE COMMONWEALTH GAMES
Former Lady Jasper Breaks Guyana's 68-Year Medal Drought
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND (July 29, 2002) - Former Manhattan College track and field Olympian Aliann Pompey '01 of Guyana clinched
a gold medal in the 400m finals at the XVII Commonwealth Games held in Manchester, England yesterday. The victory was not
only a remarkable accomplishment for the 24-year-old but it was also her country's first Commonwealth Games athletics gold
medal since Phil Edwards won the 880 yard event in 1934.
On Saturday in the semi-finals, Pompey was slow to release in the starting blocks but would increase her speed to set a
new national record with a time of 51.34 seconds for a second place finish. In the finals, the 2000 Olympian roared to victory
as the Manchester crowd watched in amazement as she surpassed the favorite Scotland's Lee McConnell and Jamaica's Sandie Richards
in the final seconds of the race.
"For the last 20 meters my eyes were kind of closed. I couldn't see anything. I was going by the crowd's reaction," said
The silver medal was awarded to McConnell (51.68 seconds) and Richards received the bronze medal (51.79 seconds).
Pompey currently resides in New York City and she continues to train at Manhattan College under the direction of sprinter
coach Joe Ryan.
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