I was born Winston Augustus Shortt on March 27, 1944, in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. My parents were Millicent Shortt, from St. Vincent, and Jeremiah Archer from Barbados. I had three brothers and four sisters, two still live in Trinidad.
I grew up in the Malabar section of Arima, and attended Arima Boys’ Government School (ABG) where I was nicknamed “Sticky”.
My mother was a vendor and my father was a carpenter. We were a family of little means.
At age 9 I was diagnosed with polio. I was hospitalized and confined to a wheelchair for three (3) months. One day, determined to test my physical and inner strength, I pulled myself up and found that I was able to stand. The nurse told me to get back in bed and wait for the doctor to examine me. Within two weeks I was discharged with a strong recommendation from the doctor to exercise and run. Filled with joy and relief, I took his advice and ran home. I discovered that I enjoyed it and found myself running everywhere.
One day my teacher, who was also the track coach, took the class to the race track to test out his new stopwatch. We lined up twice to run a 60-yard dash and to my surprise, I beat everyone both times. Mr. Springer showed me my times; the second was faster than the first. I joined the team that day.
Running in various meets against other schools, I almost always placed first. My family did not have the resources to further my education after Arima Boys’ Government School, so I was forced to work many kinds of jobs. I stopped running, found myself getting into mischief and at one point, homeless. A childhood friend invited me to live with his family, the Martins. His older brother advised me to start to running track again. After about a year, my mother allowed me to live in a home she had in the “Congo”. One day after work, I saw a group of young men running in the Savannah. They were part of the Hampton Track Club. I asked for some information and soon afterward I became a member. I ran for Hampton for almost a year.
Clifton Bertrand, who represented Trinidad in the 1964 Olympics, returned from New York University in the US. In June 1963, he started the Abilene Track Club, the first in Arima. We didn’t have a place to practice so we built a dirt track behind the Velodrome. We also built our own starting blocks out of wood.
Cliff brought many new strategies, training techniques and a lot of enthusiasm to the sport. He taught us well and Abilene became one of the most dominant track clubs in Trinidad. With his guidance and coaching, I became one of the top sprinters.
In 1965, I participated in the West Indies Championships in Barbados where I won two bronze medals by placing third in the 100m final (10.9) and third in the 200m final (21.3).
In 1966, I participated in the Commonwealth Games in Jamaica where I placed seventh in the 100 yards quarter finals (10.0), seventh in the 220 yards semi-finals (21.8), eighth in the 4×110 yards relay (41.3).
I also participated in the Central American and Caribbean Games (CAC) in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I won a silver medal for placing second in the 4x100m relay final (40.6).
Mr. P.G. Wilson, a prominent coach in Trinidad and Tobago, was selected by the Trinidad Amateur Athletic Association (TAAA) to go to the Southwest Athletic Conference in the US. He shared information about athletes and athletic programs in Trinidad and Tobago. He learned new techniques from coaches at historically black colleges and universities in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi. Several of them expressed an interest in me.
My mentor, coach and friend, Clifton Bertrand, advised me to develop goals for my life which I achieved and exceeded.
I accepted a scholarship from Coach Tom Williams, at Grambling College in Louisiana, 1965. I was impressed by him because he coached Richard Stebbins, a gold medal winner of the 4X100m relay in the 1964 Olympics. I didn’t know how I was going to get to the US. My aunt, who lived in New York, gifted me an airline ticket. I spent part of that summer with her, then Coach Williams sent me a one way bus ticket to Grambling.
I encountered obvious racism for the first time during that trip. I had to change buses in Mobile, Alabama where I found myself in need of the facilities. I started to go in but was grabbed by an older African American gentleman. He escorted me to the “colored” bathroom and explained why. Four days after my departure from NY, I made it to the college, with an infected wisdom tooth.
I was greeted by Donald Henry and John West, who became life long friends. They took me immediately to the infirmary, where I spent my first week on campus. Upon my release, I moved into the dorm and registered for my classes. Now I was a real college student in the US.
I was determined to keep my scholarship by maintaining at least a C average. I don’t mind saying that it was hard for me. There were so many things I had to get accustomed to; the culture, the climate and more rigorous educational standards.
Teammates and friends told me not to go off campus alone. I didn’t understand why. One day, Luscious Ball took me to Ruston to buy a new shirt. Upon entering the store we were told by the owner that Negroes were not allowed to shop there and that he didn’t even, “drink black coffee.” On the way back to the bus stop I saw a sign above a water fountain that read “whites only” and another one for “colored only.” I heard stories about the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and learned that they were prominent in that part of LA. Then I understood why students always traveled in groups.
I was surprised to find out that the team had a cinder track to practice on and in a stadium that seated thousands. We had daily practices in the pre-season; five days during the regular season with meets on the weekends. My techniques changed and times improved from meet to meet. I learned how to get off the starting blocks faster and relax enough to maintain my speed.
During my first year, the team participated in the Texas Southern Relays in Houston. I placed third in the 100 yards dash (9.3) and second in the 200 yards dash (21.2). We won the 4×110 yards relay (40.1).
At the end of that year, Coach Williams accepted a position with the Houston Oilers. Mr. Lee Calhoun, a gold medalist in the 1956, 1960 Olympics, became the head track coach. He needed a quarter-miler and a half-miler for the team. He asked if I knew anyone who would fit the bill. I was happy when he offered scholarships to Lennox Yearwood, one of my Abilene teammates, and Henry Noel, a competitor from another track club in Trinidad.
In July 1967, I was selected by the Trinidad Amateur Athletic Association (TAAA) to participate in the Pan American Games in Winnipeg, Canada. I placed fourth in the 100m semi-finals (11.2) and fourth in the 4x100m relay (40.1).
In 1968, while participating in the Texas Relays, I ran a 44.7 split in the 4x400m relay. In the Southern Relays I ran a 10.5 in the 100m. At the Prairie View Track Meet, I ran a 20.9 in the 200m.
Based on my performance in track at Grambling, I was selected to the Southwest Athletic Conference (SWAC) and the National Athletic Intercollegiate Association (NAIA) each year.
In July 2014, I was honored to have been inducted into the Grambling Legends Hall of Fame. My greatest achievement though was representing Trinidad and Tobago in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. I placed second in round one of the 200m (21.0) and seventh in the quarter-final (21.5); third in round one of the 4x100m relay (38.97) and sixth in the semi-final (39.52). Carl Archer, Raymond Fabien, Edwin Roberts and I ran the 4x100m relay (38.97) which set a record in Trinidad that lasted 40 years.
In 1969 I graduated from Grambling with a Bachelor’s Degree in Physical Education and Recreation, married my college girlfriend and we moved to Chicago, Illinois. We divorced several years later. Friends from Grambling were already there and helped me get my first teaching position.
While working in the Chicago Public School system I took post-graduate classes to become certified in elementary education and driver education. I received a Master’s Degree in Secondary Counseling from Northeastern Illinois University. After my regular teaching hours, I taught high school students how to drive for ten nerve-racking years. Then I became the director of one of the driver’s education centers. After dedicating 41 years to the Chicago Public Schools, I retired in 2010.
In 1983, Percy Smith, another life long friend and Grambling alumnus, co-sponsored a fundraiser for Harold Washington’s mayoral campaign. He introduced me to Patricia Gonzalez, a co-worker and high school special education teacher. We were married in 1985 and have one daughter, Hannah, born in 1991.
In the fall of 2010, I escaped the cold and went to Florida. My brother-in-law insisted on visiting the Gulf coast with the intention of purchasing a winter home and becoming a “snow-bird.” In 2016, my family and I gave away the snow shovels and relocated to Fort Myers, Florida.
By Kazim Abasali
Kazim Abasali is a multimedia artist who enjoys creating his empowering and inspiring art, music, videos, ebooks, published articles, and websites, for himself and others. To access his artistic projects, kindly visit his website.
“Empower with Art” – Hearts empowering lives.