NOTE: Updates are at the bottom.
Trinidad & Tobago. Not a traditional source of elite gymnastics activity. However, in the process to determine its first Olympic gymnast, the island nation has provided plenty of headlines and proved sports are truly the most authentic reality show on Earth.
Below I’ve done my best to summarize the happenings of the last 6 months, which are probably best be described as crazy and/or ridiculous. Before getting into the story, here’s some background on the two gymnasts involved.
The first is Thema Williams, 20, who made the country’s first World Championships appearance in 2011. For the past couple of years, Thema has been training at Twistars USA, the former gym of Olympic champion Jordyn Wieber. Originally, she was only going to stay for a short period of time, but decided to stay in the U.S. and train in Michigan because she felt it gave her the best chance to become an Olympian.
The second is Marisa Dick, 18, who is technically Canadian, but has been representing Trinidad & Tobago since 2012 (her mother is from the island nation). She won a silver on beam and a bronze on vault at the Commonwealth Invitational in 2014 for the nation. She also made the country’s second World Championship appearance in 2013, and represented them at the 2015 Pan American Games.
Up until the 2015 World Championships things were going along smoothly, then things started getting dramatic.
Allegedly, prior to Worlds the two gymnasts signed a contract with the country’s gymnastics federation (TTGF) agreeing to the terms for determining who would compete at the Olympic Test Event, and ultimately the Olympics if she qualified. Reportedly, the contract said the following:
“The WAG (Women’s Artistic Gymnastics) gymnast who scores the highest all-around score at the World Gymnastics Championships in Glasgow 2015 will be the athlete selected by the TTGF Selection Committee to move forward to represent T&T at the Olympic Test Event in Rio, Brazil in April 2016 once her scores allow her selection by the International Federation of Gymnastics to this event.”
In qualifications, Thema finished 59th, while Marisa finished 77th. However, the Federation wouldn’t declare Thema the recipient of the Test Event bid immediately after Worlds. It got to the point where Thema’s mother, Helen Adams, went public with her concerns.
After a couple of days the issue seemed to be resolved, but the Federation insisted both gymnasts compete in two additional competitions before the Test Event. That’s when the story took another twist in February 2016.
Shortly after the WOGA Classic, the first of the “test” competitions, an email was sent to several members of the country’s media, TTGF, and members of the local gymnastics community expressing outrage over a “disgraceful” photo that had been on Thema’s Instagram. The writer of the email demanded an investigation of the “topless” photo (of which a screenshot was attached to the email) and questioned “Should this be the standard that we uphold our future Olympians to?”
Thema called the letter an attempt at “character assassination.” The belief was if the TTGF found Thema in violation of its morality tenets, she would not be able to represent Trinidad and Tobago at the Olympic Test Event or the Olympics, if she qualified.
Many found the email and its timing odd, especially in light of the fact the photo was a year old (it was taken in February 2015). In addition, it had no explicit content and had been deleted within a week of its posting. (The article with the letter and photo can be viewed here.)
But the story doesn’t stop there. In another twist, before the TTGF could even make an initial ruling on Thema’s case, a screenshot of a “topless” (also not explicit) photo Marisa had posted in February 2016 to her Snapchat was sent into the gymnastics federation (article here).
The cases for both gymnasts were referred to the Disciplinary Committee, and eventually Thema was officially granted the Test Event spot in mid-March, but that’s not all…
Next twist. The day before Test Event competition, Thema was forced to withdraw, reportedly due to a recurring ankle injury. Following an email exchange between the TTGF and Thema’s coach, Marisa was summoned by the TTGF to Rio to compete, which meant flying in from Canada at a moment’s notice.
But soon after the initial announcement of the withdrawal, there were murmurs of alleged legal action. Thema’s coach claimed the email update he sent had been taken out of context and Thema was being unfairly ousted. But it was too late, the change had been made and Thema could no longer compete. An even more heartbreaking scenario considering it turned into the second time Thema got thisclose to the Olympics but didn’t qualify.
As for Marisa, she arrived in Rio less than 6 hours before performing and admirably put up a score that qualified her to the Olympics.
However, the story wasn’t over. Marisa’s Olympic spot still had to be confirmed by the Trinidad and Tobago Olympic Committee (TTOC). For about two weeks following the Test Event, there was an investigation to determine if favoritism from the TTGF played any role in Marisa’s qualification.
The investigation revolved around everything that transpired in the prior 6 months, including the revealing of an email that appeared to be proof of TTGF leadership believing Thema would not go further than 2015 Worlds in the selection process before the competition had taken place. Another part of the email chain from Marisa’s mother Hannifer, in which she questions the support her daughter is getting, can be viewed here.
If enough bias were to have been found, the TTOC could’ve taken the drastic step of not having Marisa compete at the Olympics. Furthermore, since Olympic qualifying spots for individuals from the Test Event are assigned by name, not country, the spot cannot be transferred. If the TTOC decided not to confirm Marisa, Trinidad & Tobago would’ve had to have waited until Tokyo in 2020 for another chance at having an Olympic gymnast.
The investigation concluded with Marisa’s Olympic spot being confirmed on May 2.
Also, in the days since the Test Event competition on April 17, no less than four officials have resigned from the TTGF. More resignations are expected.
For what it’s worth, both Thema and Marisa have shown a remarkable amount of poise and maturity in through a situation they had no hand in creating, yet fully involves the dream they have both worked hard to attain.
As I said to others as this saga was unfolding: you can’t make this stuff up. It’s silly that it even came to this level of drama.
UPDATE: Thema’s legal team served papers to the TTGF in late May 2016 for $1.7 million USD in punitive damages, including the loss of a potential college scholarship, in reference to the events surrounding the substitution. A suit was officially filed July 29.
UPDATE 2: In April 2017, Thema’s lawsuit got an early round win by being allowed to proceed after the TTGF argued that the dispute should be settled outside of court.