Priscilla Frederick-Loomis: Can't stop, won't stop

Antigua and Barbuda's Rio 2016 Olympian has faced more than her fair share of challenges. But that hasn't stopped the high jumper from doing everything it takes to make it to a second Olympics when the Tokyo 2020 Games take place in 2021. 

Picture by 2016 Getty Images

For many athletes, the road to an Olympic Games is fraught with obstacles.

To reach the levels needed to perform at the highest level, athletes often give every part of themselves over to achieving that dream.

For most, that means a gruelling training regime that places physical demands on you that you may not have thought your body was capable of.

In the case of Priscilla Frederick-Loomis, it has also meant a daily grind to secure the funds necessary to be able to compete that has drawn upon every facet of her entrepreneurial spirit. And more recently it has taken her down a nerve-wracking pathway that left her wondering whether the Olympic dream she has fought for the last four years would ever be fulfilled: a long-term fight with COVID-19.

The glimmer of a dream

Frederick-Loomis didn't always want to be an athlete, but she did want to be famous.

"I wanted to be on TV," she explained in an exclusive interview with Tokyo 2020. "I wanted the flash, I wanted the fame. I loved it.

"My heroes growing up were Diana Ross. It was Beyonce, it was Destiny's Child. It was these pop icons – especially females – that can hold a room."

They loved when I dance, they love my personality.

So I thought, wow, I can do both, I can do this.

But athletics was something the future Olympian excelled at. It began as an affordable hobby – "I was raised by a single mother and it's the cheapest sport to start and just be like, 'go have fun'" – but slowly became the main focus of her attention as she improved through high school and into her college years.

However, the most important revelation for Frederick-Loomis may have been the 2012 United States Olympic trials, where she not only placed an impressive seventh, but also realised that she could use her status as an athlete to entertain people – just as she had always dreamt of.

"The greatest part was at the end. A lot of the kids who were asking me for my autograph were telling me that I entertain them, they loved when I dance, they love my personality. So I thought, wow, I can do both, I can do this."

Choosing her colours

While Frederick-Loomis was raised in New York City, her father was of Antiguan descent. In 2013, she came into contact with a training partner who was representing Antigua and Barbuda and suggested Frederick-Loomis might consider doing the same.

What followed was a journey of cultural and ancestral discovery, as Frederick-Loomis began to learn about her family's history, and indeed herself.

"It's in my DNA," she explained when describing the first steps she took towards competing for a new nation. "It's my blood, it's my father's country and I needed to know that part of me. I wanted to get to know where I essentially come from."

And while the athlete admits to "culture shock" at the beginning of her journey, that feeling has given way to sentiments of gratefulness and mutual acceptance.

"I will never say that it's not the greatest decision that I ever made, or that they made in return – because I had to be accepted by the federation and the island. To be able to become the Sportswoman of the Year, the national champion, the national record holder, is something amazing."

Turning into an Olympian

Frederick-Loomis has been a revelation for Antigua and Barbuda, winning two silver medals at the Pan American Games, in 2015 and again in 2019. But the pinnacle of her career-to-date was her appearance at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

"All the hard work, all the years of sacrifice, the times that I was broke, the times that I'm travelling hours to training, not being signed, it all came through," she explained.

"I may not be signed, I may not have a lot of money, but I'm here. I made it. These other people made it but my route was so much harder and I still was able to put my best foot forward, jump really well, and represent my country, which is all anybody can ask. So it was very, very emotional."

Tokyo 2020 is the next dream, the next itch that needs to be scratched for an athlete with a singular determination to succeed.

But what does it take to fulfil that dream? For someone without lucrative sponsorship and clothing deals, it takes hard work, a willingness to grind and a strong entrepreneurial spirit.

As Frederick-Loomis explained: "I own my own cleaning business, so I was cleaning just about four to five days a week, four hours in the morning, very early in the morning.

"I was doing bartending for whoever needed help, I worked at a country club, I worked as a head coach for a high school in my alma mater... and I am now a radio morning show host from 6 am to 10 am. I started my own nonprofit, which is up and running. And I have a podcast and YouTube show with my husband."

It is a dizzying array of roles that Frederick-Loomis takes on, but she does so with skill and single-mindedness, knowing that the ultimate goal of a second appearance at the Olympic Games is worth fighting for.

But all of those dreams came close to crashing down when the athlete was faced with an even greater challenge – a recent battle with COVID-19.

The battle to be ready for Tokyo

There's a common misconception about athletes and COVID-19. Namely that elite sportspeople are not affected by it to the same extent that regular people are. But Priscilla Frederick-Loomis can pay testament to the inaccuracy of that assumption.

Having first been diagnosed at the beginning of 2021, she spent the next two months struggling with the after-effects of the virus.

"I got COVID on 17 January and I was cleared to go out into the world on the 25th. And I was like, awesome, great.

"It kicked my butt so hard. The only thing I didn't have was a fever. I had sinus congestion, I had terrible chest pain, zero energy and I lost my sense of smell and taste. I was knocked out. I couldn't get off the couch. I almost passed out in the shower when I was trying to take a shower."

A week later and Frederick-Loomis's chest pains still hadn't subsided. But she "did what athletes do." She pushed on through.

"It got the point where I was shaking and scared, because I didn't know what was happening. So I went to our local Urgent Care and I got an EKG."

After undergoing an array of tests to find out what was wrong, the doctors still found nothing. It left Frederick-Loomis in a state of limbo. When she was told she needed to see a cardiologist, she tried to make an appointment, only to be notified that the next one available was in two months time.

It was two months the Olympian could not afford to waste in the build-up to Tokyo 2020.

The scary thing is, it's time.

That's all it needs is time.

Giving what you can't afford

Out of nowhere, a stroke of good fortune gave Frederick-Loomis a glimmer of hope.

"Somebody had seen my story and apparently I jumped with her back in the day. And she said, 'My mom is a nurse. We will do anything we can to get you an appointment sooner.'

"That was Monday and by Tuesday she was like, 'I made the call. When can you do it?' On Thursday, I had the appointment, I saw the doctor and that's all it was. It was amazing."

After what must have seemed like an eternity of waiting, Frederick-Loomis had her diagnosis.

"I saw the doctor virtually because he's about three hours away from me in his office, and he said that I have inflammation of the lining of my lungs and that it's a really big thing with COVID."

But while it meant the world to pinpoint the issue, Frederick-Loomis finally found herself being asked to give something she did not have:

Time.

"The scary thing is, it's time. That's all it needs is time. I still have the chest pains. Today I'm very grateful that it has severely gone down, I feel so much better, I am slowly but surely going back to training but it's not on a schedule because I'm still not 100 per cent cleared. I'm 30 per cent cleared.

"Being a role model and being a leader is about doing exactly what you're saying and being that example. And so I don't want to be a bad role model and go to the Olympics and put myself in danger. But I'm going to exhaust everything to make sure that I'm at the Olympic Games and represent my country in the best way possible."

The Tokyo 2020 athletics competition takes place between Friday 30 July and Sunday 8 August 2021.

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