Life as an ‘elite athlete’ by Ronald J Forbes OLY

Editor’s note: When it comes to summer, it often means international competition for many athletes. Countless have gone into competition with the words “Cayman Islands” emblazoned across their chest or cap, but few have done it with the class and grace of Ronald Forbes. The 110m hurdler is a three-time Olympian and has competed at several international meets representing the Cayman Islands.

As our athletes put their best efforts forward in international competition, it is fitting that we turn to the 34-year-old from North Side to get his perspective on not just representing Cayman on the world stage, but doing so professionally and as an elite athlete. Here’s Ronald’s story.

Being an ‘elite’ or professional athlete comes with many challenges on and off the field of play. It can be quite exhilarating at times and the complete opposite at other times as well.

To be regarded as an “elite athlete” or professional athlete, at least in track and field, you must actually produce the performances which qualifies you to carry such a title.

In athletics, someone who has exhausted all collegiate eligibility and decides to compete in the sport thereafter for purposes of earning income is considered professional by default. Though you are classified as a professional, such a title can be further deemed “elite” by the results you produce (event results or finishes) and how they measure up when compared to the IAAF world rankings amongst everyone else who competes in your respective event.

For instance, if you consider yourself to be a professional at your sport but when your results are measured up and compared to the rest of the world’s athletes, your results don’t make or has never made the minimum cut off bottom rank of the world rankings or has never qualified you to any major games or events based on the sport’s governing body benchmark qualifying standard, one may ask exactly how do you consider yourself to be “elite” at such. It simply is a title that has to be earned based on performance. No one can hand you out that title.

One of the many challenges that one can face in their career of being an elite athlete is that you function in an industry that many people around you, some even in your immediate circle, have very little to no clue how it actually operates.

I have often, up to today, been constantly ask the question “What is it that you do?” When I answer “I’m a professional track and field athlete”, there is a strong chance that the person asking me that question will have the follow up question along the lines of “So how does that work?” or “What team do you play for ?”. I then have to explain the crash course of how it all works because I know based on the question, they have very little to no clue. This misunderstanding to a complete lack of understanding can often lead people to view you from a perspective of “just being and athlete and nothing more”.

Some, often when engaged in a conversation, usually only bring up track and field topics, as if you can relate to nothing else. We as track athletes know that our career is what we are mainly known for and it is something we accept but we are not just athletes, we are regular people in a sense that just so happen to be great at a sport.

With that being said, it is not far-fetched to say that many non-athletes, don’t do see a track and field career as lucrative. Sometimes you often get the impression that it’s not even considered by many as a “real job” by people’s reactions. In truth, it is lucrative. It is a career that I happen to be very good at and have made a name for myself in many countries outside of my homeland of the Cayman Islands. (Personally, I think as a track and field and sporting community, we have to conduct more workshops and functions that can serve the purpose of further educating the general public on the sport of athletics, for a more knowledgeable society.)

This lack of understanding has posed challenges in many different forms such as gaining sponsorship from local and international companies. When the marketing team or sponsorship department are relatively clueless as to your sport’s existence outside of major games such as the Olympics and many times due to the lack of understanding, find it difficult to explore any business opportunities’ that could be possible, it can leave one in a challenging position to sell their profession and compose a deal of some sorts.

My career as an elite track and field athlete functions mainly around my ability to execute a certain athletic skill publicly during an athletic competition of sorts, in a capacity that is outside the immediate attainability of the average athlete for the purposes of gaining income. Simply explained, we race for money or for a benefit that eventually will provide income. I have to train my body, mind and all the factors that that encompasses on a daily basis in order to maintain a high level of performance. Such training consists of many hours of repetition of various bodily movements, weights lifting training, running, jumping, sprinting, eating, etc.

My typical day can start at 7:00am, with breakfast, then meditation and then off to the track for 9:00am practice. Depending on the day, training can last for three hours or so and is sometimes followed by weight room training. At the conclusion of the day’s training session, it is then off to eat lunch which is usually prepared and on my person. To end the day, rehabilitative measures such as ice baths, chiropractic work and massage can finish up my day along with dinner and film review then doing most of the administrative duties such as answering emails, etc.

In essence, it becomes a lifestyle and not just a sport. Many times, these things can become monotonous but it is done for the greater purpose of attaining and maintaining a high level of performance. Often times these rigorous athletic task leaves one’s body with many aches, pains and soreness. In order to stay motivated, it takes a great deal of soul searching at times which usually includes goal setting and accomplishing, reassessment of tasks and revisiting target hitting strategies for future goals.

Contrary to popular belief, track and field athletes have to prepare for the competition season several months ahead of time in order to have optimal performances during the season. We just do not get up and start running whimsically. The typical athletics training cycle can start in September or October with base training workouts. This is where new targets are set based on the past sessions’ assessments and the training during this time is based on a much higher volume.

As some months go by, more event specific training is executed and the volume of works execute becomes lesser with the intensity of the workout become more intense in order to start to prepare for the competition/race season.

January to March is the portion of the year where indoor competition occurs. April to September is the outdoor season, which more of the world’s population is familiar with. During this section of the year, travel becomes more extensive and one can often find themselves in a different city or country within days or weeks depending on the set race schedule. This is sometimes predetermined by contractual obligations and or national obligations one must fulfill.

Depending on the athlete, they will have different preparation timelines and competition schedules. An Olympic quality athlete can often time spend years preparing for major games such as the Olympics and World Championships, honing and crafting their skills for an event which can take mere seconds to complete.

Unlike what can be considered a “regular” job, the accountability factor in my profession is very high. There is only one official judge in my sport besides the officials that I have to answer to at the end of every race, the clock. It’s the one thing that holds me accountable for my performance whether I like its displayed result or not. Unlike a regular job where for example an employee misses a deadline or drops the ball on executing a certain given task and it can be expunged by the employee’s boss, in athletics, there is no space for such refuge. You definitely live up to the adage “you are what you produce”.

The one other category of judge that happens to be unavoidable is: your sponsors (Nike, Adidas etc.) In my case, my main sponsor was the Cayman Islands Government through the “Elite Athlete Programme”. We are not just given money, we have to earn it like in any other profession and are held accountable for producing all criteria obligations set forth in the signed contract. It is by no means a donation or charity fund. Of the many criteria outlined in the elite athlete contract, it is one that ultimately has an athlete act in a capacity as a Sports Ambassador, meaning you have to not just perform well but ultimately carry and conduct oneself both in private and publicly in a manner that is deemed respectable.

Though you are representing yourself when you race, you ultimately are representing your country on and off the field of play and I have to be cognizant of that at all times. What I say and display is a representation of my country 24 hours a day. You become a walking representation of your country. In my example, I am not just Ronald Forbes but Ronald Forbes from the Cayman Islands. This responsibly has to be taken with great seriousness given the fact that smaller communities and countries may have very few persons that carry such a title and you are constantly under a watchful eye, not seen as a job but ultimately a duty.

The outward appearance of such a life of being an athlete may often times be misconstrued as one of glitz and glamour, which can often be further entertained by social media platforms but I can assure you that just like any other profession, for one to become successful at it you must be willing to endure the “nightmares to achieve the dream”. Yes, I have been afforded through my efforts to be able to travel to this day to six of the seven continents of the world and experience many cultures within those visited countries that many people may not have the chance to ever experience.

With that being said, I have had to sacrifice many things in my life in order to achieve such accomplishments. One of those sacrifices is time spent away from family and away from home. I left the Cayman Islands for university in 2004 and since that time, 15 years has elapsed. Many life goals have also been put on hold (though some have been able to accomplish both simultaneously) such as starting a family, have been place on hold as well. But as an athlete, you have to accept that those sacrifices are necessary for the accomplishing of the goal at hand. Often times, track and field athletes have to reinvest many of their earrings back into their careers for the purposes of its preservation. This can become expensive and costly many of times.

Expenditure can sometimes exceed one’s income though it is necessary, creating challenging situations for athletes. The most expensive thing is not racing the athlete but maintaining the athlete so that it they can race again and again.

Of the many things that I can say that track and field has done for me is mold and develop not just a better athlete but ultimately a better person. This, so far, I have found to be one of my greatest purposes, giving back to the many that have giving to me.

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