Tony Becca | Remembering Vilma Charlton and company
Pepperdine University in California will today pay tribute to Vilma Charlton, one of its illustrious past students, but more importantl, one of Jamaica’s fore-runners to the likes of golden girls such as Merlene Ottey, Deon Hemmings, Veronica Campbell-Brown, Brigitte Foster-Hylton, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, Melaine Walker, and Elaine Thompson.
And lest we forget, others who just missed the feel of gold by finishing second, sometimes by a whisker, or an unfortunate timing in world athletic competitions, like Grace Jackson, Juliet Cuthbert, Sherika Williams, Kerron Stewart, Sherone Simpson, Lorraine Graham, Tanya Lawrence, and Novlette Williams-Mills.
Charlton’s work as a pioneer in Jamaica’s athletics also glistens alongside the number of Jamaica’s women winning bronze medals, the number reaching the finals, and the many women sprinting down the track with distinction these days.
Qualities of greatness
Vilma Charlton was not a great one, but she displayed the qualities of greatness. She trained hard and seriously. She was always the first on the track, and from 1961 when she first represented St Andrew High School and won the Class Two 100 metres at Girls’ Championships, Charlton was synonymous with track and field at Pepperdine University and in Jamaica.
Leo Davis, the former Jamaica and Caribbean table tennis champion and noted track and field coach, said to me recently from his home in California, “Tony, Vilma must have been a coach’s dream. I never saw a woman who loved to train like her.”
Charlton represented Jamaica in the 100m, 200m, 4x100 metres relay, and apart from winning the bronze medal in the 200 metres at the Central American and Caribbean Games in San Juan in 1966, she was a member of the quartet that won the gold in the 4x100 metres relay in San Juan; a member of the team that won the bronze medal in the 4x100 metres relay at the 1966 British Commonwealth Games in Kingston; and also the team that won the 4x100 metres bronze at the 1967 Pan Am Games in Winnipeg.
She also represented Jamaica at the Olympic Games in 1964, 1968, and in 1972, and at her best, she was as fast as Carmen Smith, Una Morris, and Rose Allwood were over the 100 and 200 metres around 1964, 1968, and 1972.
As good as Vilma was as a woman in the early stages of Jamaica’s track and field and around the time when women like Hyacinth Walters, Katherine Russell, Cynthia Thompson, Carmen Phipps, Ouida Walker, Carmen Smith, Audrey Reid, and Andrea Bruce fought for recognition, her big contribution to track and field was as a volunteer.
Having served as a pioneer on the track, Vilma continued her tremendous work, where she devoted her time to its development, and it is a testimony to her perseverance and commitment that Jamaica’s track and field performance not only glows so brightly, but that women are right there with the men today.
In her early days as a pioneer, she was, like Thompson and company, an inspiration. In the later days, as a former athlete who became an administrator, she continues as a teacher and a motivator.
After attending Pepperdine, where she studied from 1966 to 1973 on a scholarship, gained degrees in physical education and education at primary and secondary level, and did track, Vilma Charlton worked at Bethlehem Teachers College, St Joseph’s Teachers’ College, and the University of the West Indies.
On her return home, she became a member of the Jamaica Athletics Administrative Association (JAAA) and has been part of Jamaica’s track and field ever since rain or shine.
Today, Vilma Charlton will be inducted into Pepperdine’s Hall of Fame for her prowess on the track, and as Jamaica congratulates her, we should remember those who, after their days in the sun were over, stayed around to help those coming into the glare, people like Jackie Hendriks, Michael Fennell, Denis Johnson, Alva Anderson, Donald Quarrie, Dr Michelle Holt, Theodore Whitmore. Sandra Riettie, Mark Neita, and the many who represented Jamaica and continued to help Jamaica’s sport long after their days were over.
With men and women like Vilma Charlton and others, many of whom did not have the opportunity, for whatever reason, to represent their country, people like Pat Anderson, Dr Donovan Bennett, Tony James, Lincoln “Happy” Sutherland, and Hugh Perry, the future of sports is bright, very bright.