Skip to content

Guyana’s 1st CARIFTA Games gold medalist Vigil Lewis remembers his 1977 triumph

…believes new generation can earn Olympic gold

Vigil Lewis

I waited in the starter’s blocks, my ears alert for the sound of the starter’s pistol. I badly wanted to win a medal — any medal — for myself (and) for Guyana. The Games were almost over, and we were in danger of returning home empty-handed.
I was used to feeling earth and grass beneath my feet when I ran, (so) this red synthetic surface was unlike anything I’d run on.
I’d even come to the Games with the wrong spikes for running on synthetic. An Olympic sprinter had given me the correct spikes just in time for this race. As if all this wasn’t enough, it had begun to rain…

It was at age six that I discovered that I had a talent for running. Back then, we attended church in the afternoon, and sometimes they would hold athletic events. I remember being taken to one of these events on the West Coast of Demerara and winning a race.
My father was a policeman, and when I was nine, he would take me and my older brother Gordon to the Police Sports Club Ground, Eve Leary, to race against other children.
Gordon won the 60 metres’ race for the under-11 and 12 age group. When he grew older, I took over and also won the same events twice.


Waveney Benn with her 1977 CARIFTA Games bronze medal

At St. Stephen’s Government School, which we attended, Gordon would win the under-12 and under-14 events. I wanted to follow in his footsteps, but our coach, a “Mr. Green”, seemed to only be interested in training Gordon and a sprinter named Brian Dey, (whom) we called “The Flying Saucer.”
In 1975, Gordon transferred from St. Stephen’s to East Ruimveldt Secondary, while I began attending East La Penitence Government School. I took my running talent with me, excelling in the 100 and 200 metres and the 4×100 relay (boys’ under-12). That earned me the school’s ‘champion boy’ status.
Meanwhile, there was another ‘champion boy’ at St. Stephen’s School. He was my old rival Brian Dey, “the Flying Saucer”. It was only a matter of time before we clashed. That finally happened in the Inter-School Championships at the Georgetown Sports Club Ground.
The coach, Mr. Green, was also there, and I boldly told him, “You made a mistake in not coaching me. I’m going to beat ‘Flying Saucer’.” I proceeded to win the 100 metres in 11.9 secs, and I was only 11 at the time. Then I beat ‘Saucer’ in the 200, and in the 4×4 100-(metre) relay for under-12 boys.
Until I turned 13, all our running was done barefoot. Gordon and I began to train at the National Park.
Around 1975, I was awarded a Chronicle scholarship to East Ruimveldt Secondary. “Back School”, as we still call it, had some of the country’s top junior athletes, like my brother Gordon; high-jumper and shot-putter Wilbert Angoy; and long-distance runners Oliver Alves, Wayne Mathurin and Brian ‘Chinaman’ Griffith.
I dominated in the 100, 200, and 400-metre races, while Gordon dominated in the 100 and 200 metres. We trained hard. We would run 10 miles on roadways to build our endurance, then 400, 600, 700 and 800 metres on the track. By 5:30a.m, we would be on the seawalls, running in the water to build our endurance.
The only supplements we knew of were Vitamin B12 tablets and glucose. My mother made every possible sacrifice to nurture our athletic careers. She gave us a steady diet that included soup, porridge, and lots of cow’s milk. She would sell milk, black pudding, and bread to invest in our athletic careers. She even sewed our track suits.
Nobody actually trained us. Luckily, I had Gordon to guide me. We would practise in front of mirrors to see if our running posture was right, or if your knees crossed. If they crossed, that meant you were out of stride. We never did weight training, which is now a basic part of athletics training. We did pull-ups on a beam at home, and ran up the long steps in the stands at the National Park, or in the sandy hills at Linden.
In April, 1976, at age 16, I got my first big overseas break when I was selected for the Bahamas Junior CARIFTA Games. That was my introduction to ‘rubber’ tracks. I found out how different these surfaces were to the grass tracks that I ran on back home. For instance, you have to learn to ‘bounce’ when you run on synthetic tracks. The long spikes we used on grass tracks were inefficient on this material.
I didn’t have the shorter spikes. In fact, I didn’t even have my own running shoes! The one I was wearing were Gordon’s. I managed to reach the finals in the 100 and 200 metres, but failed to earn a medal. However, our long-distance athletes Oslyn Barr copped silver, while Oliver Alves, my ‘Back School’ colleague, earned a bronze in the 800 metres. That race was won by a very good Barbadian distance runner, Trevor Small.
I redeemed myself five months later at the Inter-Guyana Games in Suriname.
Running again on a grass track, I won the 200 metres (boys under-17). I won another gold when our team won the 4×100 boys under-17 relay.

The Lewis brothers — Gordon and me — were Guyana’s top sprinters in our age group.
That earned us selection for the April 1977 CARIFTA Games, which were held in Barbados.
Guyana took its largest contingent of athletes. There was my brother Gordon, Eugene Phillips, Wilbert Angoy (high jump), Waveney Benn (800 metres) and sprinters Marilyn Dewarder and Gem Barrow.
We were certain that this would be our best CARIFTA games’ performance.
Former sprint champion Rocky McPherson was our coach. We encamped at the Guyana National Service base for two weeks of intense training with the GNS ranks. I later travelled to Springlands, Corentyne, where it was quiet, to train undisturbed.
Most of us were visiting Barbados for the first time, and I guess we were a bit distracted at first. For me, my initial distraction was the memory of the Cubana disaster. It was just six months earlier that a terrorist’s hidden bomb had caused Cubana Airline Flight 455, with 11 Guyanese among the passengers, to crash in the sea off Barbados. One of the victims was medical student and athlete Eric Norton, whom I had met at the Inter-Guyana Games in Suriname.
The Holiday Inn, where our team stayed, was close to the ocean, and I often found myself staring at the sea and wondering where the plane had crashed.

Eventually, we went to the Barbados National Stadium, and I saw a track that I’d never seen before. It was a red Tartan all-weather synthetic track.
“I never ran on a track like this,” I said to Gordon. “The Bahamas track wasn’t like this.” None of us had the correct spikes for this track.
The Jamaicans had the largest contingent. Their athletic attire alone scares you, and of course they had all the right equipment.
Perhaps because they did weight training, the Jamaican and Trinidadian athletes were muscular. Compared to them, I was skinny.
On Guyana’s grass tracks, I’d clocked 11.6 seconds in the 100 metres and 23.2 seconds in the 200. These were excellent times for my age, so I was expected to do well in these events. But without the right spikes, on that strange red track, I could only manage a disappointing fifth in the 200 metres.
Things were also going badly for the rest of the team. We were being blown away by the Jamaicans (their medal haul would be 34 gold, nine silver and seven bronze) and the Bermudans. The sight of Gordon being outrun in the 100, 200, and 400 metres (men’s under-20) was a discouraging sight. Jamaica’s 200-metre sprinters, Small and Lee, seemed to ‘fly’ rather than run.
The Games were winding down, we had no medals, and the mood was low. But I still had two events: the 100 metres and the 400 metres (boys under-17).

My 400-metre event came first, and luck was with me. Trinidadian 1976 Olympic gold medalist Hasley Crawford was at the stadium. He had brought extra spikes for synthetic tracks, and he readily assisted me.
But then I was placed in a lane in which I was unaccustomed to running. And it had begun to rain. “I never ran in lane seven,” I complained to Gordon. “You trained for the race, just run your race,” he said.
Still, I was so nervous that I asked Gordon to follow me through the tunnel that led to the ground. “Just walk out with me,” I said.
Wilbert Angoy, our high-jumper, was on the field preparing for his event. I intended to run the first 200 metres extremely fast, so I asked him to let me know how far ahead I was of the others when the race started.
As the drizzle continued, I settled into my starting blocks. I focused my attention on Trinidadian Londsdale Demming, who was just ahead of me in the staggered lane on my right.
The starter’s pistol broke the silence, and I bolted from the blocks. By the first 15 metres, I had already passed the Trinidadian.

“At least I’m going to get a medal,” I thought. You see, at that point, I was content with even a bronze. I completed the first 50 metres…I was still ahead! Now I dared to think ‘gold’.
I was all alone on the turn when Wilbert Angoy shouted, “You have ten metres on them!” I could hear the Guyanese in the stadium shouting, “KEEP GOING!”, and Gordon, still standing near the entrance, yelling, “WORK YOUR ARMS! WORK YOUR ARMS!”
But I had started fast; maybe too fast. In a race like this, you have to focus on when to accelerate. You don’t want to ‘die’ coming down to the end, but that was happening to me. Now my legs were practically gone, that was why Gordon was urging me to pump my arms. The more I worked my arms, the more I could lift my legs. I kept going. Had Gordon not been there, I would have ‘chucked.’
And now all of the training, all of the technique, all of the encouragement from my coach, came into play. Then, with 60 metres to go, the Trinidadian drew alongside me. “No way you beating me,” I thought, and sprinted to the tape just ahead of him.
I had won Guyana’s first CARIFTA Games gold medal. I had done it in 50.1 seconds! I had just broken the under-17 CARIFTA Games record!
That record (had) stood for years.
I followed up this victory with a bronze medal in the 100 metres (boys under-17).
Then our long-distance queen Waveney Benn gave us another bronze in the 800 metres (under-20 category).
My mom later told me that she’d been praying all the time when I was running. Then she overheard radio sportscaster B.L Crombie announce that I had won a gold medal.
She’s now a healthy 104, and still asks people, “You know who is my son?”

On my return, I continued to put in excellent performances on the track. In 1978, I was offered a scholarship to a United States university, but an embassy official turned me down. He said that Gordon and my sister had already gained scholarships. I think one of the reasons I was rejected was that some other local athletes never finished their scholarships.
Being turned down for the scholarship destroyed my motivation to train seriously. I was very good back then. Had I gained that scholarship, I believe that I would have been ready for the 1984 Olympics. People who have seen me run still say, “You were fast.”

Guyana had very good athletes during my time, like James Wren-Gilkes, Anthony October, Clifton Shultz, my brother Gordon, and Eugene Phillips and Barr and Alves, but we didn’t have the exposure and the modern facilities.
Jamaicans who know that I used to run track, sometimes tease me by asking how many Olympic gold medals Guyana has, and I have to say we have none.
But the future looks much brighter for our young athletes. They have the synthetic tracks, the training equipment, the coaches, and knowledge we didn’t have. They can view footage of themselves and international athletes.
Guyana has come a long way. We have Tianna Springer (who won the under-20 girls 400 metres in record time at the 2024 CARIFTA Games, and also the 400 (metres) gold medal in the 2023 CARIFTA Games).
All I want is for our young athletes to win an Olympic gold medal. All Guyana needs now is a gold medal.
(Recounted by Vigil Lewis to Michael Jordan)

The post Guyana’s 1st CARIFTA Games gold medalist Vigil Lewis remembers his 1977 triumph appeared first on Guyana Times.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.