Groups of happy sprinters and relayers at the 2012 CSI: At left, Ky Westbrook, Chyna Ries, Dior Hall and Deajah Stevens. At right, Cameron Burrell, Taivon Jacobs, Devon Allen and Dante' Price. Below, Devon Allen in the 110 hurdles.
1/12 Update: Jim Spier and Joy Kamani of the NSAF this week have met in Havana with Alberto Juantorena and other Cuban athletics officials and the date for the 2015 Caribbean Scholastic Invitational is now June 13, 2015! The change in the timing of the event means that the athletes from every state are eligible for the NSAF (U.S.) team.
Twenty-eight American high school track and field athletes, to be chosen this spring by the National Scholastic Athletics Foundation (NSAF), will be part of an exciting, history-making Caribbean Scholastic Invitational (CSI) competition in Havana, Cuba in June – as CSI is revived after a one-year hiatus. NSAF Executive Director Jim Spier, Chief Operating Officer Joy Kamani and St. Thomas Aquinas (Fla.) head coach Alex Armenteros traveled to Havana later this week to meet with Cuban athletics officials to iron out the details. The event is now set for June 13, 2015.
The NSAF began the Caribbean Scholastic Invitational in 2006 with a dual purpose: One, to expose rising track and field stars – with more potential Team USA berths in their futures – to international competition at an early stage of their career and, two, for an exchange of cultural goodwill between American athletes and those from Caribbean nations. The event had typically taken place in Puerto Rico and has been very successful during eight meets since.
Athletes who have competed for “Team NSAF” have included many who have gone on to Team USA berths at the World Juniors, World Champs (seniors) and even the Olympics – as well as being high school record-setters and becoming NCAA champs. The “alumni list” includes Marquise Goodwin, Jessica Beard, Arman Hall, Bianca Knight, Wayne Davis II, Omar Craddock, Gunnar Nixon, Shamier Little, Devon Allen, Avionne Allgood, Joe Kovacs, Olivia Ekpone, Jennifer Madu, Johnny Dutch, Kendell Williams (the heptathlete/hurdler/jumper), Kendal Williams (the sprinter), Dior Hall and many more.
Competing in Cuba, though, brings a new level of excitement, competition and a “history-making” vibe to this annual event.
“We’re overjoyed that this will take place,” said Spier. “As far as I know, this will be the first time that U.S. junior athletes have competed in Cuba since 1997 (Pan Am Juniors).”
One might assume that the genesis of this event was the political developments of December 17, 2014, when U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced a reestablishment of diplomatic relations and intentions to loosen travel and economic policies. But this would not be accurate. “We applied the ‘old fashioned way,’” said Spier, “through the Treasury Department – the same way we did in 1997 when John Blackburn, Mike Byrnes and I went to the Pan Am Junior champs.”
This past September, the Foundation had consulted among itself regarding different possible Caribbean venues that might attract more diverse competition. Could we possibly send a team to Cuba, NSAF officials wondered? It was a question that inspired interest and investigation.
“Joy and I had always wanted to bring the team to Cuba,” said Spier, “or the Bahamas or some other Caribbean island where the Caribbean nations did not need a visa to go.” He and Kamani emphasized that most Caribbean nations had needed U.S. visas to travel to Puerto Rico, which are extremely difficult and expensive to get.
NSAF Board member Tracy Sundlun had been in Cuba last October with Federico Rosa on other matters. Rosa, from Italy, is one of the world's leading track and field agents and represents many Cuban athletes. While there, they broached the CSI idea and it was welcomed by the Cuban Federation, including Olympic legend Alberto Juantorena.
Sundlun, Rosa, NSAF Board member Paul Limmer, and Spier met in New York at the New York Marathon in November. Rosa provided the contact information and acted as intermediary between the NSAF and Cuba. "That helped to set up the Cuban end of the deal," Spier said. "All that was needed then was to obtain permission from the U.S. State Department."
The application process for this event began this past October and was made relatively easy by cooperative U.S. government officials, particularly La Talia Williams from the Treasury Department," Spier said. "She is a former hurdler who has an understanding of the sport. We had a very good rapport over the past two months."
The NSAF plans to begin extending invitations to form the 28-member team after New Balance Nationals Indoor – with results of that meet likely playing a big role in team selection (with some exceptions, like outdoor throwing events). The team will be finalized in April and participating athletes will need passports, of course, as well as visas which the Foundation will purchase.
As mentioned above, the change in the timing of the event means that the athletes from every state are eligible for the NSAF (U.S.) team. The previous June 6 date would have kept athletes from about 15 states from consideration due to state meets. Spier and Kamani also hope that this 2015 CSI will draw athletes from more Caribbean nations, particularly Jamaica.
Stay tuned for more details in the months ahead!