He was one of the first who appeared alongside Keshorn Walcott to congratulate him last Saturday when Walcott copped Olympic gold for T&T in London, England. But exactly who was that tall, balding guy, some in T&T may have wondered. It definitely wasn't Sports Minister Anil Roberts. It was in fact Walcott's coach, Cubanborn Ishmael Lopez Mastrapa who couldn't believe that his protege had captured the gold medal.
"I was in shock, Keshorn was in shock. He couldn't believe it, but he did it," Lopez recalled at his office at the Hasely Crawford Stadium, Mucurapo on Thursday. Lopez who has been one of the major forces behind Walcott's training, has been so well camouflaged in the background that few- save those in the sports field- may have recognised who he was when he stood hugging Keshorn just after 4.30 pm last Saturday when the unassuming Toco 19-yearold had won T&T's only Olympic gold in 36 years.
Walcott's achievement was an early birthday present for Lopez who turns 43 tomorrow and who saw Walcott through his successes at other regional and international meetings. While Walcott's story began in Toco, Lopez's own began in eastern Cuba and its capital, Havana, where he lived.
He came to T&T as part of an exchange programme which the sport ministry in the Patrick Manning administration initiated in 2004 with Cuban Government. Lopez was mandated to coach throwing events - from shot put to javelin-at primary school level. Speaking in heavily accented English, Lopez recalled that his work narrowed down to mainly javelin instruction and shot put since T&T lacked the full facilities for hammer throwing.
By 2006, Lopez had settled into T&T life and married a T&T national which allowed him to take up legal residence in Trinidad. Lopez began coaching athletes for the Youth Championships and Pan Am Junior Championships. "I met Keshorn in 2009," he recalled. And he immediately sensed the teenager had something special. " I saw he had potential. He had discipline... one of his throws at the time was 59.30 metres and in the Under-17 group, that was very good ," Lopez said.
The coach subsequently became acquainted with Walcott's Toco hometown since he journeyed to the village twice a week to teach his charge as part of the sport programme. In that same year Walcott headed to the World Youth Championship and showed how much he had improved. "I saw how relaxed he was and fluent with his throws and the level of co-ordination. It was easy for him, it was very evident he was a natural.
But he also paid attention to everything and seemed very analytical," Lopez said. Walcott went on to top the Carifta Games. It was around that same time during a Toco training day, Lopez noticed that Walcott's range had moved further up to 80 metres. "He has never showed fear or nervousness. He was always relaxed but has taken the (javelin throwing) sport seriously. Once he talked to me about an Argentinian rival from one regional event and I told him 'You'd beat that guy."
Do you know that he met up with the same rival at the London Olympics and he really did beat him!" Lopez said with a grin. Lopez said the final day of the London competition was a blur. Watching the other contestants, Lopez said he gauged that the T&T boy could be heading for a medal. " I just didn't know which one. But he went in feeling alright, we had nothing to lose," he said.
But defeat was not on the cards. Lopez said when the verdict came in, Walcott was in shock and disbelief that he'd won. "But he was very, very happy. I can't describe the moment properly," he said. It is the first time one of Lopez's charges has ever struck gold at the Olympics and the man who considers himself "almost a Trini now" believes T&T can go on to capture more, once the facilities are in place for youths to train.
"We have the potential here not only for more javelin throwing but for the other disciplines of throwing sports, but it must be developed. "Keshorn's talent doesn't happen every day, he was clearly born to throw, but many others can develop their ability also. T&T only has to try," he said.