This interview of high jumper Levern Spencer was done by RBR world jorno Stuart Weir. Levern has been in three Olympics, eight World Championships, over the past twenty years. Stuart spoke with Levern in Glasgow this past February 2020. r
13 questions for Levern Spencer
Levern Spencer has been an elite high jumper for nearly 20 years. She has competed at 3 Olympics, 8 World Championships going back to 2005, 4 World Indoors and 5 Commonwealth Games. Stuart Weir chatted to her about her career and why she has made a big change in preparation for the 2020 season.
1. How did you get into track and field?
Levern Spencer: It started in elementary school in Saint Lucia, just running around and being a kid. I represented my house in competitions in primary school – running but not jumping. I didn’t start high jumping until secondary school. I was a sprinter and I was beating the boys so I realized I had the ability to run fast, and was talented in that area. So, I continued to represent my house and then the school.
2. What about high jump?
Levern Spencer: In secondary school I was asked to do high jump for my house. I had never done high jump before and didn’t know the technique but I think the teacher asked me because of my height and I said: “no problem”. I won. I was happy that I won because I didn’t know anything about high jump! About a month later I was in another competition and I broke the national record. So to break the national record with no knowledge, no technique and without training for it… I was thinking if I can break the record in those circumstances this is something I should consider taking seriously. So I started training for the high jump and was getting better and better and I realized it was something I might do more of in the future. I broke the national high jump record at age 14 and I still have it 20 years later!
3. Is it an advantage or disadvantage to come from a small island like St Lucia?
Levern Spencer: Coming from a small island, some people have the perception that you cannot achieve as much as people from a big country because we don’t have all the resources like they do. A lot of times when I travel I see athletes with their doctors, physios and masseuses. But for us, it’s just us! We have to rely on the meet to provide medical care and even equipment at the track. People sometimes believe, without the resources, that you can’t get to the top. But I have got to the highest level in track and field and I’m from a small country. So if I can do it, other people can do it as wellIf you set your mind to something and train hard, I think you can achieve it.
4. You’ve had a long career. What do you regard as the highlight?
Levern Spencer: I feel I have had so many highlights that it’s hard to choose one. Winning gold in the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia was definitely one of my highlights. Saint Lucia had been competing in the sport for 56 years and never won a gold medal. I’ve had two bronze medals in the Commonwealths and a pole vaulter also got bronze. So winning the first gold at the Commonwealth Games was a really big thing for my country. It was such an honor to see our flag being raised and to hear our national anthem. Not too many times have I heard our anthem played with everyone standing for it. That was such an honor and I’m happy that I was the one who was able to create history for my country. That was a big moment.
5. What are your memories of Olympics and world championships?
Levern Spencer: All of them were so different. For sure I remember the Beijing Olympics 2008. I was really well prepared and had been jumping well all through the season but then the weather was so bad and I wasn’t prepared for those conditions. Not just mentally because physically – I don’t think we were equipped with the right clothes. It was raining and I had no rain gear so I was soaked. There was nothing I could do about it but I was really disappointed because I was in good shape to do well but I did terribly. I really liked the 2008 Games Village and the opening ceremony was the best I have been to. It really felt like the Olympics with icons or the Olympic rings or mascots everywhere. Everywhere there was something to remind you it was the Olympics. Sadly while the village and ceremony were awesome, I performed really badly – mainly because of the bad weather and the delays. So I was really disappointed.
7. Rio, was your best Olympics?
Levern Spencer: Yes, and Rio was history-making again. It was the first time that a Saint Lucian ever made the final at any Olympics. So just to qualify for the final was an achievement in itself. So as I competed in the final, I was already thinking that I had achieved a big goal. It had rained before the final so the surface was wet. To finish sixth was the best performance I’ve ever had at an Olympics but I felt that a medal was just within reach. I jumped 1.93 and the winning height was 1.97. So I just needed a 1.97 to be in the medals. I think I jumped better in the qualification with no misses. If the qualification had been the final, I think I would have got a medal! But looking back am really grateful to place sixth and to end competition without injury.
8. In the Rio final four athletes jumped 1.97, with seven at 1.93. That seems unfair. How do you view it as an athlete?
Levern Spencer: That is why it’s so important to get the height with your first attempt. In Rio 5th to 12th all jumped the same height, 1.93. But it all depended at what point you cleared each bar. As a jumper you do feel frustrated when that happens but I don’t think it’s unfair. I can see it both ways, but I don’t see it as unfair because if someone clears the bar at the first attempt that’s better than someone who takes several attempts. But the same time you have both jumped at the same height and you might think it should count the same. Sometimes they have a jump-off for first place.
Medals at Commonwealths and Pan Am
Levern Spencer: I think that throughout my career I have done exceptionally well for my country and there’s no other athlete who has achieved what I have. I have won NACAC, CAC, Pan Am and Commonwealths – all the championships that there are for our region. Over the years I have won every single one of them. And set records. Pretty much the only medals I don’t have are world and Olympics. I do have world youth.
I’ve had a good career even without the world or Olympic medals because I’ve been able to qualify for those championships. I’m thankful that I was able to give my country someone to look out for at the games. I always remind myself that not everyone can get a medal and recognize that perhaps it’s not meant to be and it is not my time. You have to recognize that there are only three medals and that you are competing with perhaps 30 other jumpers. Everyone is going for the medal so it’s not easy.
9. What is the difference for a high jumper between indoor and outdoor competition?
Levern Spencer: I’m a better outdoor jumper. I like space and I like the air. There are a lot less distractions indoors. And a lot of the surfaces are different. Some of them are regular track, some of them are laid down track. Sometimes we jump with pole vaulters, sometimes we run across the 60 meter track. Sometimes you have to stop when someone is running across you. With the spectators right next to you and with so much going on. it is hard to stay focused. I think it’s because there is so much going on indoors that I do better outdoors.
10. At the 2018 world indoors, we had men and women jumping together in opposite directions. What did you make of that?
Levern Spencer: I was happy that they had the high jump on day one with just one race, so that people could focus on it because I don’t think a lot of people normally pay attention to field events. But I don’t think I’m a fan of having it back to back because you had two people competing at the same time. I found it a little distracting and a little odd.
11. Your PR is 1.98. Is that a frustration that you never quite made the magic two meters?
Levern Spencer: I don’t want to say to frustration. Yes, my PR is 1.98 but I got so close to two meters a number of times. 1.98 is not far off two meters but somehow two meters puts you in another class. Everyone wants to get to the two-meter mark, which puts you on another level. I would love to get a PR and hopefully I can do it before I am done with the sport. But even if I don’t, I’ll still be happy with my career and what I have achieved throughout the years. I’ve seen some athletes clear 2 meters and then never do it again. When you have a high PR, it is harder to beat it.
12. You recently changed coaches and countries, why was that?
Levern Spencer: I had been training in the US for 10- 15 years with the same coaches and they were great. But I am coming to the end of my career I wanted to try out something different. I thought moving to Europe would make it easier to get to competitions. From the US, the flight is always long – you have jet-lag and have to adjust your body to local time. Being in Europe I won’t have to adjust to a different time.
At meets when your coach isn’t with you, other coaches sometimes offer to help. One time at an indoor meet, Denis Doyle helped me and I jumped an indoor PB so when I decided to go more to Europe, I spoke to him and he said “sure” and now I am based in Bath. After jumping for 20 years we are now trying to implement some new approaches and different stuff. When the 2020 indoor season started, things were not quite where I wanted them to be but I am trying to trust the process. I am giving it time because new things don’t happen overnight. I am trusting Denis’ workouts and what he is trying to get me to do. The goal now is to implement in competition what I have been learning at practice. The training has been going great, the weather not so much. All winter it was raining and cold every day and I can’t deal with the cold. Hopefully moving to Bath is a positive change. If I get better, I will be pleased. If I don’t it’s OK because you will never know if you don’t take the chance. You have to try it to find out.
13. You are a Christian. How does faith affect your life?
Levern Spencer: I grew up in a Christian home. So that is all I know. I was born in the church – not literally. My mom, sister and brother are all Christians. I was raised with Christian values. I believe that all that I have achieved, I have not done in my own strength but because of God. A lot of times people try to take credit for what they have done forgetting that it was not in their own strength. Even when I do badly, in as much as I am disappointed, I always remind myself “OK Levern, maybe it was not your time.” But God sees the bigger picture which you don’t see and I just continue to trust and think it is OK. You are disappointed but I don’t dwell on it. At the end of the day, I think God knows best. God is in control and I just let it happen.
I think the biggest difference is the way you respond to poor performance. I think I get over things quickly when I realize that it was not meant to me. Maybe God had another plan. Maybe it was not your time. There are times when I go to a competition and do terribly but if you respond in a positive way then maybe at the next competition you do great and you think, maybe that is why. Maybe God did not want me to get it at that time. So being a Christian helps you to respond to failures in a different way. I think too that on the circuit you can be an inspiration to so many other athletes. Sometimes someone just needs a word of encouragement. You are there at the time when they are going through some rough patch just by talking to them and they may say “You made me feel better”. So even when you are not in church you can be an inspiration to someone, just by praying with them. The way you live your life can help someone, be a blessing to someone or help someone along the way.
Interview Glasgow February 2020