By Sharon Robb
January 7, 2015—Long before she was a world and national record holder, gold medalist and ambassador for the sport, Alia Atkinson was a gangly 14-year-old teenager with a dream.
In 2001, she joined Comets Swim Team, now the South Florida Aquatic Club, and started working with head coach Chris Anderson.
Three years later, she was living that dream in the first of three Summer Olympic appearances for Jamaica.
She has competed in the 2004 Athens, 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Olympics, where she came close to winning her first Olympic medal, finishing fourth in the 100-meter breaststroke.
She won a 2010 NCAA title in the 200-yard breaststroke in her senior year at Texas A&M.
But it wasn’t until 2014 when her just-misses for gold and world records in major meets turned into a world record, gold medal and milestone for black swimmers.
After dominating the FINA Grand Prix Series and cashing in on her biggest payday in swimming, Atkinson, at age 25, tied the world record and won a gold medal at the FINA World Short Course Championships.
She is not only the first Jamaican swimmer, man or woman, to tie a world record (1:02.36) and win a gold medal in a major meet, but she is the first black woman to win a world title, hopefully opening the door for other black swimmers who have a dream and now see that it can be done.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Atkinson, whose stunned look after her race was captured in a photo and seen throughout the world on national television and every major website, newspaper and magazine.
“It came down to the same thing as the 50 where I got out-touched so in my mind I went straight back to that. I just thought, ‘Oh, OK’ and looked up at the board, and it didn’t really click yet and then it really started to click. It took a while.”
Atkinson has always been an inspiration to her SOFLO teammates who look up to her and are thrilled to train and share the same pool deck with her. She is hoping to inspire other women in the Caribbean and Jamaica, where there is more attention given to track and field and bobsledding, to get involved in swimming and make a little history of their own.
“Hopefully, my face will come out, there will be more popularity, especially in Jamaica and Caribbean and we’ll see more of a rise, and hopefully in the future we will see a push.”
Atkinson is currently leading Jamaica’s People’s Choice Award poll by the Jamaica Gleaner newspaper. She has 68 percent of the votes while No. 2 athlete Jaheel Hype has 29 percent.
The Speedo-sponsored swimmer is also the odds-on favorite to be named Jamaica’s Sportswoman of the Year after finishing runner-up several times to track athletes. The award will be announced at a reception on Jan. 16 at Jamaica’s Pegasus Hotel.
To take up where she left off in 2014 and to start the 2015 season off, Atkinson posted on her Facebook page: 2013 Was Practice, 2014 Was The Warm-up, 2015 Is Game Time.
Atkinson joins other 2014 SOFLO Swimmers of the Month sisters Kathleen and Molly Golding for January, Sebastian Sierra for February, Jessica Rodriguez for March, Leonardo Mateus for April, Rafael Rodriguez for May, Valentina Carrion for June, Erika Pelaez for July, Isabella Di Salvo for August, Kellie Wilcox for September, Sara Quintero for October and Jacqueline Lugo for November.
The Nike Swimmer of the Month award, chosen by the SOFLO coaching staff, is awarded each month to the swimmer who excels at both swim meets and practice sessions.
Sharon Robb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org