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Woody Lawrence, Dominica’s first Olympian

By Dan Palmer

Woody Lawrence will not be unprepared when he takes on the role of Chef de Mission for Dominica at the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games.

The former competitive swimmer has held the position at five major Games and likes to know everything is in place well in advance.

“I tend to be one of the earliest Chef de Missions in the Village,” he said to insidethegames.

“I like to arrive early and I believe I was the first Chef de Mission at Gold Coast 2018.

“It’s important to be there early to start things – getting to know who my circles will be and trying to make my contacts.

“I think that’s pretty important. I’m planning to be in Birmingham early to get myself set up.” 

As well as the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games, Lawrence was also Chef de Mission for Dominica at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

He also had the role for the Pan American Games in Guadalajara in 2011 and Toronto in 2015, and the 2018 Central American and Caribbean Games in Barranquilla.

“This is my sixth major Games,” Lawrence, who has spent much of his life in Canada, said. “Back home they call me the President of Chefs, I am the most experienced!

“I genuinely enjoy what I do. 

“Having that athletic background helps me as well. With the athletes, I know exactly what they want. 

“I’m sort of above and beyond because I really want to make the athletes comfortable.” 

Lawrence also knows about being early in his sporting career, as he has the distinction of being Dominica’s first-ever Olympic athlete.

The Caribbean island gained independence from Britain in 1978, but had to wait until Atlanta 1996 to make its Olympic debut.

Six athletes competed, with five in track and field and Lawrence the only swimmer.

“Swimming being the first set of events, I was the first to compete,” said Lawrence, who raced in the 50 metres freestyle.

“The Olympics were never part of the ‘Woody plan’. After I had stopped competing in Canada, and when I made a decision to come back to Dominica, swimming was sort of on the back-burner. 

“I never thought I’d get back into it and it just kinda happened.” 

Lawrence left Dominica for Barbados at the age of nine, and later swam for his high school and university in Canada.

After returning to his home island he began to coach local swimmers, and he embarked on two major long distance swims including one in 1994 from Saint Lucia to Martinique.

“We wanted to promote swimming and that was one of the ways we used to promote the sport back home,” said Lawrence, who also gained public attention swimming along the west coast of Dominica in 1995.

“We don’t have any facilities but we do have the ocean, so we tried to focus a little bit on the open water side.

“The water conditions that day were actually really bad.

“The French [in Martinique] thought we were crazy. 

“In the French local creole, they said we were ‘sacré fou‘ – fou is crazy in French. They were like ‘you guys have completely lost it’.

“I came fourth out of 12 in 13 hours and seven minutes. The conditions were really bad, there were eight to 10 foot swells.

“The French authorities were on the look out for sharks.” 

Lawrence never competed at the Commonwealth Games but his son Warren, also a swimmer, is set to race in Birmingham.

If he opts to carry on and reaches Paris 2024, Dominica would have its very first father and son Olympians.

The early preparation in Gold Coast paid dividends as the country won Commonwealth Games medals for the first time since its debut in 1958 – both in triple jump.

Yordanys Durañona came home with silver in the men’s event and Thea Lafond bagged bronze in the women’s competition.

Durañona has now switched to long jump but Lafond has stuck with her discipline and will be a major medal hope in Birmingham.

At Tokyo 2020, she came through qualifying with the third longest jump of 14.60m, before fading to 12th in the final while searching for the island’s first Olympic medal.

Triple jumping has been a strong event for Dominica as their main hope at their first Olympic appearance in Atlanta was Jérôme Romain, who won bronze at the World Championships in Gothenburg a year earlier.

“I really don’t know,” said Lawrence, when asked why the triple jump has proved so fruitful.

“That is something I really can’t answer. 

“I guess it just so happens that triple jump has been our most outstanding event in terms of performance.”

Dominica did not compete at any Commonwealth Games between 1974 and 1990 but has been ever-present since then.

The Birmingham team could potentially include 11 athletes in athletics – eight men and three women – as well as two cyclists and Warren Lawrence as the only swimmer.

There is a youthful feel as Warren, 800m Olympian Dennick Luke and road cyclist Kohath Baron are all only 19.

“We have a few young ones we can hope to channel through in the years to come,” said Lawrence.

Sprinter Danelson Mahautiere is another Dominica athlete who will be hoping to impress in Birmingham, and another track and field star is making an impact in sports governance as well.

In March 2021, high jumper Brendan Williams was named as chairman of the Commonwealth Games Federation’s Athletes’ Commission.

He is the first Caribbean person in history to lead the athlete body at a major sports federation. 

“He is definitely one of the good ones who has helped us a lot in terms of establishing fairly high standards,” said Lawrence.

“It’s an honour for us.” 

Lawrence is the longest-serving Board member at the Dominica Olympic Committee – which has former international cricket umpire Billy Doctrove as its President – having joined in 2009.

It is hoped that sporting facilities on the island can be improved alongside increased sponsorship and marketing.

“We have managed to purchase our own building, so we now have our own headquarters which we’re very proud of,” Lawrence said.

“There is definitely potential to get into more promotion of the brand of the organisation, especially during Games-time.

“We could get into merchandising and promote the athletes.

“One of the things I enjoy doing is pins, I’m a big pin guy. I have a lot of pins, I’m also known as the guy who has all the pins!

“To me, the pin culture is one of the ways you can mix and mingle and meet people. 

“A lot of people are always interested in your pins, so it’s a nice way for the athletes and officials to become more down to earth. It’s a wonderful way to meet people.”

Lawrence said one of his “missions” was to build a top-level swimming pool in Dominica.

“There are some facilities that have been refurbished, especially the community courts for basketball and volleyball,” he said.

“We do have a little indoor facility that has not been officially opened yet, it’s still being constructed. 

“The Government is talking about building an indoor facility including a swimming pool. I’m looking at private sector funding and private investment. 

“There is talk about building a track. There is ongoing talks with the Government about trying to acquire the land. That’s been ongoing for several years.

“One of the things our President wants to achieve is to get a track built. I’m hoping that can become a reality.”

New sporting infrastructure would be particularly welcome after the country was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017.

Sixty-five people died in Dominica after winds reached 165mph.

There was extensive damage and the island was temporarily cut off from the outside world.

“Two weeks after the hurricane I had to try and make my way to Australia for the Gold Coast Chef de Mission seminar,” said Lawrence.

“Quite a few people saw me in Gold Coast and said ‘we did not expect you to be here’.

“Even the Australian immigration officer at the counter said ‘oh my god, I’ve heard so much about what happened in your country. It’s good to have you here’.

“Since the hurricane there has been a lot of talk about building stronger and building more resilient.”

Lawrence described the hurricane’s aftermath as “really, really bad”.

“It was complete devastation, it was horrible,” he said.

“It was estimated around 10,000 to 15,000 people left after the hurricane.

“Most have come back but some have stayed.

“There’s still quite a few homes that haven’t been repaired. It was a hell of a night.”

Living in the potential path of hurricanes is something many in the Caribbean have had to learn to live with.

“It’s a major risk and we just have to learn to adapt,” said Lawrence.

“By having the consciousness of planning for disasters, and investing in more resiliency, not just in construction but also people. 

“People also need to understand what it takes to be resilient, it’s not just buildings, it is the people and the culture as well.”

Lawrence attended the Birmingham 2022 open days in March and believes preparations are coming along well.

“I’m very happy that we have the open days, because for a lot of us, when the Chef de Mission seminar was postponed in January [due to COVID], it was like ‘uh oh this is not a good sign,'” he said.

“But the open days were a success and we got a good chance to get a feel of the whole vibe. 

“There is of course some work still to do but I think generally it is coming along well.” 

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