March 28, 2014
By Christopher Walsh
It began with a breadfruit.
Ok, it didn’t really, but it’s still a good story.
It goes back a few years to when Candicea Bernard was growing up in Jamaica, and her aunt picked the rough, green, football-sized fruit only to set it down because some of the juices were seeping out.
That’s when inspiration struck.
“Well, I was like, ‘It’s a good idea if I try and shot put this breadfruit’,” Bernard said while laughing at the memory. “Just got up and I shot put it. I live near a river, I shot put her breadfruit down the river and she was mad. She got so mad at me.”
Predictably, the distance of the throw didn’t impress the aunt, or that “Candi” had possibly just invented a new sport – the breadfruit heave – en route to becoming a track and field standout.
“She was HUNGRY,” Bernard continued. “She was hungry and I just shot put her food.”
Nevertheless, it’s from those Golden Spring beginnings in the Kingston region of the island that Bernard’s career not only began, but also started her down what could only be described as a unique path to the University of Alabama. The real beginning occurred while she was playing a sport that’s about as foreign to Americans as breadfruit, even though its Jamaica’s most popular for women, a sport called netball. Similar to basketball, there are seven players on each side with no backboards or dribbling, and players have three seconds to pass or shoot the ball.
The same 5-foot-11 frame that made Bernard sort of a natural on the netball court also got the attention of her St. Hugh’s High School track coach, Michael Vassell, who asked if she might be interested in the field events. Bernard said, “OK, I’ll try it.” And found that she “really, really enjoyed it.”
“Competing is kind of one of my passions because I just enjoy going out there and letting loose, like a little tiger,” she said. “It’s one of those feelings.”
Bernard went on to become the first female discus thrower in Jamaican history to qualify for the World Junior Championships. Although she had competed all over the Caribbean, facing the best that the International Association of Athletics Federation had to offer was both an eye-opening experience and inspiration. So was the trip to Canada, as the 2010 meet was held in Moncton in southeastern New Brunswick (roughly a three-hour drive east of the Maine border on the way to Nova Scotia).
“I think that kind of competition really made me grow tougher skin,” said Bernard, who was encouraged by her coach to not only continue pursuing the sport, but also consider acquiring an American college education instead of staying home.
“It’s a beautiful island,” Bernard said of her home. “It’s one of them, you know, ‘I love my country’ types of feeling because there are some good things going on in track right now.”
While Jamaica has had tremendous success of late in the sport, competing for U.S. schools is nothing new and there are two other Jamaicans on the Alabama women’s roster. Remona Burchell recently became the first woman in Crimson Tide history to win an indoor national championship in the 60-meter dash, while Yanique Malcolm clocked two 800-meter times at the SEC Indoor Championships that rank in the all-time Alabama top 10.
All three Jamaicans had to go the junior college route to academically qualify but there, again, Bernard stood out by heading to possibly the last place anyone would expect to find an island girl – the desert. At Central Arizona College, located just south of Phoenix off of the Interstate 10 highway to Tucson, Bernard captured both the 2012 indoor and outdoor junior college national titles, and was the indoor 20-pound weight throw champion as well.
“She really did a heck of a job academically there, too,” Alabama throws coach Doug Reynolds said. “To qualify and be able to come to Alabama, literally her last semester she took 26 credit hours and passed them all, more than double an average load.”
Reynolds was the other key factor. The former NJCAA discuss and shot put champion had a stellar career at Arizona, and one of his Wildcat connections was Bernard’s personal coach, Tony Dougherty.
“I heard that Doug, Coach Reynolds, was here and I was, like, ‘Yes!’, because he knows his stuff, and he’s about the best coach I’ve seen in the NCAA thus far,” she said. “He’s truly amazing. Instantly he had me, because he was kind, he was considerate, and he made me realize that I wasn’t just here for track. (He also provided) emotional support, and family. ‘I know you’re away from home. We’re you’re family’. I like the whole family experience. That’s what caught me.”
While neither the tropical nor desert climates quite prepared Bernard for the snowstorms Tuscaloosa experienced this past winter (which Bernard described as, “very, very surprising”), the weather has otherwise suited her. Academically, she’s opted for a dual major of anthropology and psychology in hopes of not only someday being a counselor, but also making Alabama her long-term home. Meanwhile, she’s working with the team nutritionist to have a more streamlined body that’s more conducive to Southeastern Conference competition, and likes the results so far.
“As a big girl, as a thrower, they expect you to be grubbing all the time,” Bernard said about her eating habits. “It’s kind of further from the truth when you’re a Division I athlete.”
Otherwise, like with most other newcomers, a lot of her success will probably be determined by technique and how well she can hone it down not only in shot put and discus, but weight throws too. It’ll take some time, but Bernard made her Crimson Tide outdoor debut this past weekend at the John Mitchell Alabama Relays, where she won the shot put.
“She has a lot of potential yet to be realized,” Reynolds said. “She’s pretty good, but she could be a national-level finalist.”
Considering Bernard’s competitive nature and hard-working attitude, one has to believe that she’ll remain on target, even if her background has been anything but typical. Ideally, it’ll go hand in hand with an improved sense of timing – unlike what she had with the breadfruit which, if you’ve never tried one, is the exact opposite of her personality – very bland.
“Patience,” Bernard said is the thing she’s learned the most at Alabama. “Definitely, definitely, patience. It has been hard, because you want it right now. When it really matters, when it really, really counts, that’s when you let it out.
“Wait for big meets and make it happen.”