In a five-year span that began in 1995, collectively the team of Savatheda Fynes-Coke, Chandra Sturrup, Pauline Davis-Thompson, Debbie Ferguson-McKenzie and Eldece Clarke culminated the journey being crowned champions of the women’s 4 x 100m relay at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.
Together, they began the quest by winning the silver at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, followed by another silver at the Goodwill Games in 1998 and then the first gold at the IAAF World Championships in Seville, Spain in 1999. That historic 4 x 100m relay performance dubbed them ‘the Golden Girls.’
Against that backdrop, the ‘Golden Girls’ went Down Under’ in Australia where they clocked a season’s best of 41.95 seconds to out-duel the Jamaican team, anchored by Merlene Ottey for the silver in their season’s best of 42.20 with the American team with Marion Jones on anchor fading to the bronze in 42.20.
For Fynes-Coke, considered one of the fastest starters in the world, preparing for the return to the Olympics ‘Down Under’ in Australia was one of their greatest achievements after they fell short in Atlanta.
“We already knew in our minds what we were going to do because in our training camp, we had already made up in our minds what we were going to do,” Fynes-Coke said.
“Everybody got a chance to practice their legs once we realised what each other’s strength was. So it wasn’t a problem when we came together to run the race.”
Having gone their separate ways since the games, Fynes-Coke said they have a WhatsApp group where they communicate with each other on a daily basis. But she admitted that with their concentration on their lives, the focus is not so much on their accomplishments unless someone brings it up.
Fynes-Coke, who retired in 2006, is currently in her first year as an assistant coach at Bloomfield College in Atlanta after she came out of a hiatus to develop her family with her husband Paston Clarke Sr, whom she married in 2008.
She got her breakthrough, however, in 2010 where she served as a volunteer sprints coach at the East Orange Track and Field Club of New Jersey and the Colombia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey. That led to her accepting the assistant track and field and cross country coaching job for the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) where she produced several Great West Conference finalists.
“So far it’s been good. They just hired a new head coach and we are currently working things out,” said Fynes-Coke, who now juggles her spare time with her two sons, Paston Coke Jr, 13, and Omari, 8.
The Coopers Town, Abaco native went on to compete for the CR Walker Knights before she went to Southern University at New Orleans and Eastern Michigan University before she transferred to Michigan State University, graduating in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 2018. During her tenure at MSU, Fynes-Coke was a multiple NCAA indoor and outdoor champion with her most successful season coming in 1997 when she captured four titles in the Big Ten Conference Championships. She ended the year as the George Alderton Female Athlete of the Year.
Still holder of the Bahamas national indoor records in the 50m (6.05 seconds in 2000), 55m (6.65 in 1997) and 60m (7.01 in 1999), Fynes-Coke went on that same year to become one of the three Bahamians in the 100m final where she placed seventh before they got the relay gold.
Fynes-Coke, who will celebrate her 46th birthday on October 17th, had her greatest individual performance when she ascended the podium for the bronze in the 100m at the IAAF World Championships in Athens, Greece, in 1997. “I don’t have any regrets. After the Olympics in 2000, I was nursing a few injuries,” said Fynes-Coke, who was also a 100m bronze medallist at the 2002 Manchester, England Commonwealth Games. “The injuries were just too much to bear, so I decided to call it quits.”
Sturrup, who turned 49 on September 12, was unavailable for comments. She is a two-time IAAF World Championships 100m bronze medallist in 2001 in Edmonton, Canada and 2003 in Paris, France.
The Norfolk State University graduate, who still bears her name on the national 100m record with her time of 10.84 in 2005, is the mother of one son, Shawn Murray Jr.
Davis-Thompson, 54, just Monday celebrated the 20th anniversary of being elevated from silver to gold in the women’s 200m after American Marion Jones got stripped of her title when she tested positive for a banned substance.
That added to the individual medals she won at the IAAF World Indoor (silver and bronze in Barcelona and Maebashi in 1995 and 1999 in the 200m) and outdoor (silver in the 400m in Gottenburg); Commonwealth Games (bronze in the 100 and 200m in Auckland, New Zealand in 1990) and the Central American and Caribbean Games (gold in the 100 and 200m in Santiago in 1986).
The former IAAF Councilwoman now employed as a consultant with the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Culture, said she was exhausted and tired after her performance in the 200m in Sydney where she had to run two rounds a day, but she was just elated to be able to run with the girls in the relay.
“I knew that my job was not done after I won my individual medal. It was time to deliver the relay medal for the Bahamas,” said Davis-Thompson, who was on the third leg.
“We had five girls with different personalities, but we had a great sense of patriotism.
“We all loved our country. We wanted to do our best for our country. We were all on the same page. We all felt the same thing.”
Davis-Thompson said when she got the baton from Sturrup, she went out there to give the baton to Ferguson-McKenzie with the lead and once they did, they knew that they were in a position to beat the Americans.
“We knew Jamaica had some great sprinters, but they didn’t do what we did. We had to show them how David took down Goliath as we went after the Americans,” she noted.
“So when I passed it to Debbie, I just told her to go. I didn’t know how I got the baton to her and was still able to talk to her, telling her to move now. I was really focused on putting the baton in her hand. She got it and she did it.”
The 44-year-old Ferguson-McKenzie, still remembered for her sterling anchor leg in Australia, said it was a blessing being on the team, considering the fact that she was not able to run in Atlanta four years earlier.
“In my opinion, it was that one moment in time. Even with all of the individual medals that each of us won, that was the most prolific moment for us as a team because that encouraged me and I’m sure others, to make their dreams come true,” Ferguson-McKenzie reflected.
“It was a humble thing where it only had to be the Lord. He put together five females and made us come through with the first relay gold for our country. We know that Pauline won the first gold medal for the country in the 200m, but it was something special.”
What was so special, Ferguson-McKenzie remembered, was coming home with a welcome ceremony and parade where Bahamians from all walks of life greeted them.
“Everybody was happy because we won an Olympic gold medal,” she stressed.
“The country came together.
“I think it was more cherishable. It was wow. I can’t believe that 20 years came so fast.
“I want to thank the ‘Golden Girls’ for us doing it together. I thank our country the Bahamas and I thank the fans for supporting us.
“We couldn’t have done it without the fans.”
Being the kid on the team, Ferguson-McKenzie said she felt the pressure because she knew that the country was riding on her when she got the baton from David-Thompson and she had nothing left to do but to run.
Having officially hung up her running shoes in 2016 after a car accident, Ferguson-McKenzie has shifted her career to coaching. She just moved from the University of Houston where she is now an assistant at the University of Kentucky under Bahamian head coach Rolando Greene.
“Being in college and being young, we know that the athletes like to party, but this isn’t the time for it,” said Ferguson-McKenzie, whose message in this COVID-era that she preaches to her student-athletes, including Bahamian sophomore Megan Moss and freshman Jaida Knowles.
The former CC Sweeting student, who went on to graduate from St Andrew’s School and went on to excel at the University of Georgia, said she was forced to retire and concentrate on her coaching at the University of Houston.
She said the sport is in good hands with the current athletes like Olympic 400m champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo.
In addition to sprinter Anthonique Strachan, currently training in Jamaica, and collegians Breanne Bethel at the University of Houston, and both Moss and Knowles, whom she’s guiding at Kentucky.
To the Bahamian people as we deal with the coronavirus pandemic, Ferguson-McKenzie advised everyone to take it seriously because it’s taking lives as she has witnessed in the United States.
“I know sometimes when it doesn’t hit home, people take it easy,” she said.
“So please, please continue to play it safe and listen to the guidelines issued. Be safe.”
Clarke, now at the Ministry of Tourism, said it seems like it was just the day before when they sat around talking about their game plan for the big day.
“The day before was really an exciting day because we knew that we had trained extremely hard and we had just had three women in the 100m final,” said Clarke, who watched as Fynes, Sturrup and Ferguson-MxKenzie contested the century.
“At that point, it was ours to lose. But we were prepared mentally because we did the work. We would have worked at this for five years. We were really prepared mentally and physically to win the gold at the 2000 Olympics.”
Although she was the alternate on the grandest stage, having ran in the preliminaries, it was the first success for Clarke, the oldest member of the group, who had an 11-year age difference over Ferguson-McKenzie, the youngest member.
“Despite what differences we had, we were all focused and with five different coaches and five different backgrounds, we brought it all together to achieve one common goal, which was to win the gold,” Clarke stated.
“We were extremely disciplined. We all came through a successful junior programme and we all excelled in college, so because we were focused, we came home with the gold from the Sydney Olympics.”
The graduate of Government High School went on to compete for Hampton University where she finished with a degree in physiology.
But the mother of a son was the only member of the team who opted not to get into coaching after she retired in 2000.
Instead, she prefers to use her background in physiology to serve as a mentor for young girls.
And she’s also hoping that their success as the ‘Golden Girls’ 20 years ago will inspire the younger generation of female sprinters.