Tanara McLean on the Road to Turino: Tropical Ice Age

By Kwame Laurence
Updated: May 20, 2005

Tanara McLean

Tanara McLean

TRINIDAD—Trinidad and Tobago’s red, white and black flag on display at a Winter Olympics’ opening ceremony. At one time, most citizens would have scoffed at such a suggestion. But that was before T&T first took entry in the two-man bobsled event.

Given the speed and power requirements, it is not surprising that a country that has produced an Olympic men’s 100 metres champion and a World Senior Championship 200m gold medallist got its first Winter Games exposure in bobsledding.

Maybe next time–the 2006 Winter Games in Torino, Italy–T&T will be represented in another discipline. Figure skating, perhaps?

“Nah” you’re probably thinking. Well think again!

Canada-based Tanara McLean has made a 500-mile move, from Red Deer, Alberta to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to pursue her Olympic dream.

She dragged herself away from her mom and 15-year-old brother, Cody, to train in Saskatchewan, under the guidance of Dale Hazell, a certified level 3-4 coach with 34 years’ experience and a reputation for producing champions.

Now that McLean is part of the Saskatoon Figure Skating Club, she trains with Nicole Watt.

“Nicole is Canada’s next big thing,” McLean tells Express Sports. “She lives across the parking lot, and will probably be one of my rivals. But that’s okay.”

McLean wants to become T&T’s first figure skating Olympian, and is convinced that Hazell is best equipped to help her get to Turin.

“He has coached numerous international athletes, and is well recognised in the skating world. I always got good height on my axle, but only two or three feet in length. Hazell got me to five feet on my first day with him!”

McLean, born on September 11, 1984, migrated to Canada with her mother while still an infant.

“When I was about seven, I saw skating on TV, and said ‘I can do that’. We went skating with church friends and it was pretty easy for me. But I only started seriously at 12, which is late. Most kids start at four or five. My goal is to prove the doubters wrong.

“I don’t just want to go to the Olympics to say I went,” she continues. “I want to say to kids everywhere that against the odds, no matter what your race or whatever, you can achieve the things people say you can’t.”

Debi Thomas created history at the 1988 Games in Calgary, Canada, becoming the first black athlete to capture a medal at the Winter Olympics. The American figure skater earned bronze. McLean is planning to go two better.

“I want to be the best. My mom always told me she didn’t send me to school to achieve mediocrity. Some say when they compete they want a personal best (PB), but I say make your PB count, make it a gold medal. I have a burning desire to win Olympic gold, as well as world titles.”

Black figure skaters are very rare in Canada. However, McLean does not expect the colour of her skin to be a hindrance as she pursues her Olympic dream.

Michelle Kwan

“I have been the victim of unfair judging, but not because of race. People up here are very accepting, and try to help.”

One black skater who has earned much more than mere acceptance on the international circuit is Rory Burghart.

“She’s the niece of Roberta Flack, and the first black woman to make a mark on the tour. She’s a great source of motivation for me. I also look up to Michelle Kwan, the most decorated skater in history. She’s amazing, winning everything but Olympic gold. She’s so graceful.”

Like Kwan, McLean is an artist on ice. And though she had a relatively late start to competitive figure skating, the Morvant-born lass is supremely confident in the rink.

Just 12 in her first competition, she beat 14- and 15-year-olds.

“After that, I pretty much cleaned up everything, except for a few where there were judging discrepancies.”

Sporting success for McLean has not been limited to figure skating.

“I took to rhythmic gymnastics like a fish to water, and finished second in the province two years in a row. It embodies the artistry needed in skating, so I still do routines at home.”

Now that McLean is training full-time, on the road to Turin, she is pursuing her education from home.

“I’m going to school on the internet. I skate whole day, and work school into my schedule.”

But don’t think for a moment that this charming teenager is guilty of truancy. She is bilingual, fluent in both English and French, and keen to become a medical doctor.

“My main focus in the coming years will be skating, but I want to pursue some schooling while I’m training. When I do become a doctor I want to be part of the ‘Doctors Without Borders’ programme, giving my services for free in Third World countries.”

In the immediate future, however, just one Third World country will benefit from McLean’s services. She hopes to make her T&T debut next year.

“I live in Canada, and I’ve lost my accent, but Trinidad is home. I want to help my country. Since moving to Canada, I’ve been back home more than a couple times, the last time three or four years ago, but I look at pictures from home a few nights a week.”

When she does make her grand entrance in T&T colours, McLean will do battle in the junior ladies division.

The T&T skater earned the right to compete among the juniors by successfully executing triple jumps and the double axle manoeuvre.

“I’ll probably spend one year at the junior level to get acquainted with the judges. Then I’ll move up to senior ladies. That’s when you can compete at the Worlds, the Olympics and the Goodwill Games.”

Attaining that level would be a fitting tribute to the three most influential people in McLean’s life: “My mom’s twin sister, Anessa Missana, was a big inspiration. She lived in Toronto, and sent me my first skating dress in 1995. My grandmother Mavis Sandy, who still lives in Morvant, is also very influential.”

But the one who stands out among the three is undoubtedly Amoryl Sandy-McLean.

“My mother’s there for me 200 per cent of the time; always there to give a hug when I need one and even when I don’t. Things didn’t come easy, but she’s strong, and yet so tender,” Tanara says, in the warmest of tones, fighting back tears of gratitude. “She’s the rock of my family…amazing.”

Sandy-McLean is funding her daughter’s training programme, at the Saskatoon Figure Skating Club.

“I owe her every paycheck for the rest of my life,” the younger McLean quips. “It’s expensive.”

Appreciation of her mother’s sacrifice, though, does not supersede gratitude to her creator.

“My number one inspiration is God, Jesus. Religion has helped me get through the tough times.

“Who would have thought a little girl from the Caribbean would be able to skate?” she continues. “If I had not come to Canada, I would not have known.”

Fate played its hand, and today McLean knows exactly what she wants out of life.

“I’m very proud of Trinidad and Tobago. I’m very eager to skate for my country,” and also very determined to mount the top rung of the rostrum, in Turino.