Thea LaFond participates in a track and field event for the University of Maryland. She graduated from the university in 2015. (PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND)
Thea LaFond participates in a track and field event for the University of Maryland. She graduated from the university in 2015. (PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND)
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When Thea LaFond, a parishioner at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Silver Spring, found out that she would be headed to Rio de Janeiro to represent her home country, the Commonwealth of Dominica, in the 2016 Summer Olympics, the first thing she did was thank God and ask Him, “How did you do this, God? How did this happen?”

It happened because LaFond tried different things, listened to advice, relied upon God and worked hard to achieve her goals, but her route to the sport of track and field was not direct. She was originally a dancer, and had been doing ballet, tap and jazz since she was seven. When she was 13, she had to stop because her family could no longer afford it. In order to fill that void, she turned to high school sports.

LaFond joined the volleyball team at John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring her freshman year, and when the winter season rolled around, she asked if she could manage the basketball team. The coach said no, because he thought she looked too athletic for that. It was eventually her friends who convinced her to try track, and when she showed up for her first practice, she began by joining the  distance runners. The coach said, “Let’s try something else,” and told her to watch and copy another runner who was doing hurdles. That began the jumping career that would lead her to competing in the women’s triple jump in Rio.

LaFond was first inspired to go to the Olympics when she saw Usain Bolt, a sprinter from Jamaica, succeed during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She had just started running track, but she still thought, “This could be me one day.”

“This man from an island in the Caribbean, Jamaica, grew up very humbly, but he had a gift,” LaFond said. “He held to his hard work and all that dedication, and you saw the sacrifice. I think that is what drew me to it all.”

When she was a senior in high school, her lifting coach told her that due to her dual citizenship, she could be  competing for Dominica in junior national competitions. She took his advice, and since then she has had the opportunity to travel to places like El Salvador and Jamaica to compete.

While she was just shy of the qualifying mark for the Olympics, each country is entitled to have two athletes – one male and one female – and since Dominica only had a male entrant, the Olympic Committee accepted LaFond to be the female competitor. She now makes up half of Dominica’s Olympic team.

LaFond has dedicated herself to a grueling training schedule, which included practicing the triple jump in the snow at eight o’clock at night, but said she couldn’t have done it without God and the people who have been praying for her.

“All I have been doing is thanking God, because I couldn’t have done it without Him,” LaFond said. “I mean the amount of people praying for me…it almost feels like success was inevitable.”

LaFond is particularly grateful for the support that the St. John the Evangelist community has given her. Throughout high school, LaFond volunteered to teach 8th grade CCD with Peg Daly, who was always keeping up with her track  career and telling her, “Hey, I’m praying for you.” LaFond said these reassurances somehow always came after a difficult week, even though Daly didn’t know it, because “she just had this sixth sense about her.”

When LaFond got the e-mail confirming she was going to the Olympics, she was sitting in her room and could hear her mom praying down the hall. She called out to tell her mom the good news, and the first things that her mom said were, “Praise God. Text Miss Daly.”

Leading up to getting the news that she would be competing in the Olympics, LaFond had been struggling with an injured heel. She would often be limping off of the track in pain, but knew that she had to keep getting jumps in if she was going to qualify for the Olympics. She recalls praying to God exactly a week before she qualified, asking Him what she should do about the injury, and whether or not she should just stop for the season.

“He came back one week to that date and answered things for me,” LaFond said. The news that she would be going to the Olympics allowed her to take some time off to rest and recuperate, and when she went back to practice for the first time, she was able to jump with very little pain.

Conversations between LaFond and God are commonplace, because from a young age her parents instilled in her that prayer is not something that is formal.

“While He is high up there and all powerful and all mighty, you can still talk to God like He is your best friend,” LaFond said.

LaFond was also a part of the track and field team at the University of Maryland, where she graduated from in 2015. She received a scholarship to attend the school, which she was grateful for, because it gave her the opportunity to save her parents some money that she had seen them work so hard for ever since they all moved to the United States when she was six years old.

“They weren’t always able to give me what I wanted, but they were able to give me what I needed, and I was able to get them a few things in return…this sport was able to do that for me,” LaFond said.

While at Maryland, LaFond said she found a “second home” at the Catholic Student Center, where she would go to Adoration or Wednesday night Mass and dinner. She started bringing her other Catholic teammates with her to Mass, and before long, “I had my own little crew going to Mass with me on Sunday.”

“Having communities like that that always support you is just unbelievable,” LaFond said. “Because no matter where you go, you may not have biological family, but there is a Catholic church almost everywhere on this planet and you will find a support system within those walls.”

LaFond still has family in Dominica on her mom’s side, but a lot of them have also moved away. She thinks her family is even more excited than she is about her competing in the Rio Olympics.

“…for all our family around the world, they are around the world because they got up and left in search of something more,” LaFond said. “And if I am a representation of that more that is achievable and attainable, all glory to God.”

(The qualifying round of the women’s triple jump will take place on Aug. 13 at 8:30 a.m. ET, and the final round will take place on Aug. 14 at 7:20 p.m. ET. They will be streamed online at http://www.nbcolympics.com/.)