BREWSTER, Mass. (AP) — It was in his hands. Stephen Headley was going to the Olympics.
Headley, who recently started as the assistant recreation director in Brewster, was born in Philadelphia and grew up in Wilbraham. His parents came to the U.S. from Barbados when Headley’s father went to school at Temple University, and they never left.
When he was a sophomore at Minnechaug High School, Headley tried his hand at track.
“It came naturally to me when I tried it,” he said. “It was easy. It was fun, and the more I did it, the more I realized I can get better.”
He went on to be a repeat NCAA champion in the 100-meter dash at Springfield College and represented Barbados at meets across the globe.
In 2016, he thought he was going to reach the pinnacle of the sport: running in the Rio Olympics.
The Barbados 4x100 meter relay team was the last of 16 teams to qualify for the Olympics, just days before the qualifying window closed.
“We were 16th for a while and what happens toward the end of that deadline is teams are trying to get in that top 16 and (they) are fighting for seeding and stuff like that,” Headley said earlier this month at Eddy Elementary School, the home of the recreation department.
“I think it was three or four days before that closing window,” he said. “I’m sitting in a meeting with the Barbados Olympic Association, signing documents saying, ‘I’m an Olympic athlete.’ I had to get drug-tested and they tailored me for my Olympic ceremony suit, they showed me where I was going to be staying in the athletes village, they gave me the key to the athletes village, they bought me my plane ticket to Rio, everything. It was like, this is final.”
Then Headley saw his dream slip away.
The Cuban 4X100 team had just run a better time, knocking the Barbados squad to 17th and one spot out of qualification. For Headley and his teammates, the Olympics ended before they even started.
“It was in my hand,” he said. “I still have at home all these documents I filled out.”
Fast forward nearly four years, and Headley still hopes for a chance to compete at the highest level of the sport, even though the sun may be setting on his running career. Now 31, he thought the move to Brewster was a good one at this stage in his life.
“I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot that I’ve wanted to accomplish,” he said. “Now it was a time in my life where (he and his wife) want to have a family eventually and this was the best move for my career.”
Being on the Cape, where there are no indoor track facilities to shield him from the New England winter, makes it hard to train at the highest level.
“I told my coach, ‘I’m going to take this job on the Cape,’ and he was like ‘OK, if you do that your (track) career is over,’” Headley said.
Headley has also been nagged by a back injury that has hampered his ability to train. If he was still only 24 or 25, with the possibility to continue to compete for years to come, it could be different.
“The only thing I have not gone to is the Olympic Games,” he said. “That would be the one reason why I would want to continue. I’m not going to turn down this job opportunity for the next, could be 20-30 years, for nine months of training and hope I make it.”
That doesn’t mean he’s ruled out still trying to compete for Barbados.
“The competitor in me wants to prove I can still run out here and make teams,” he said.
Looking back, Headley said he’s proud of his career, which has seen its ups and downs.
Instead of going to school with a decorated track program, Headley wanted to stay closer to home. He attended Springfield College, where his father is a professor.
“I grew up on that campus. I was the little faculty kid,” he said.
After graduating, Headley continued to compete. While at graduate school, again at Springfield College, he got a chance to train professionally with some of the best runners in the world in Marietta, Georgia, in preparation for the 2012 Olympics.
“It was a Friday they called me, and on Monday I was in Georgia,” he recalled.
But it was a huge jump for Headley. While he was one of the best runners in New England, down South in the epicenter of U.S. track and field, he was on the bottom rung of the ladder. The training was hard and it didn’t end up being a good fit for him.
He started to run poorly, and eventually he left Georgia and came back up to Springfield to get his master’s degree. He continued to train, but his confidence was at an all-time low.
“Mentally it was just a lot,” he said. “That Georgia experience changed me a little bit.”
One time Headley and his father drove to Lowell for a meet. He recalls being so shaken, his confidence so low, he didn’t even want to get out of the car.
He started focusing on his career outside of track. He got an internship at the Wilbraham YMCA, which led to a job at the Y in Melrose, his first full-time job, where he was working for the past six years before coming to Brewster.
His co-workers encouraged him to get back into running, and a win in the 60 meters at an indoor meet at Boston University started to build his confidence back up.
“Ever since then, times just dropped and confidence was way up,” he said. “I was running in professional meets again and I made Barbados teams again.”
Running for his parents’ home country has come with a big sense of pride for Headley and his family. He also met his wife, Shakera, through the team. Shakera, who now works as a nurse on the Cape, was also a sprinter. She holds the country’s 100-meter record.
Track is among the biggest sports in Barbados. But it was still easier for Headley, who is a dual citizen, to try to make the Barbados team than the U.S. team.
“I always wanted to compete internationally, and making the U.S. team is way harder,” he said. “So, for example, I can run the Olympic qualifying time, which is like 10.1 (seconds), but the problem is the U.S. has about 30 guys that can do that. I can run 10.14 (seconds) and not even sniff the team because there are guys running 9.8 and 9.9.”
But it was also hard being the lone Yankee on the Barbados squad. He was always the outsider. The other runners had competed and risen through the ranks together for years, competing at junior meets together. It didn’t help that he took a year off to focus on his job and wasn’t running well for a time, leaving a four-year gap between his stints on the team.
“For years it was awkward,” he said.
But being the outsider did help fuel him.
“It gave me a real chip on my shoulder,” he said. “I wanted to prove I belonged.”
Whether he has a chance to prove himself again remains to be seen.
“We’ll see how it goes,” he said. “But if not, I’ll just say, ‘Hey, I had a good career.’ Through it, I met my wife, I met a lot of really good friends I still keep in touch with from Australia to London. I’ve seen a lot of places for free. It’s been a huge experience for me.”
Information from: Cape Cod (Mass.) Times, http://www.capecodtimes.com