Channon Thompson is the face of local volleyball. At just 19, she is already a five year veteran of the senior national team and is set to be a key figure in its 2014 FIVB World Championship campaign.
Warming up for the road to Italy, she dominated the NORCECA Women's Second Round Group I qualifiers in St Augustine last week, leading T&T to a gold while taking home awards for Best Scorer, Best Striker, Best Server and Most Valuable Player. She was in action again over the weekend in the Caribbean Volleyball League, helping UTT sucessfully defend its title and earning another MVP trophy.
Before her match against Technocrats on Thursday, in which she would score 14 points in a straight set victory, Thompson spoke to the Guardian about her decision to choose a volleyball career over furthering her education, her relationship with her teammates, and why her sport is on the fringe of a spike in popularity in T&T.
Mention volleyball to Thompson and it will trigger a smile. Having tried swimming and running, she found her calling at 13 when she joined the Starlings Club, immediately developing a passion to be the best.
"What's not to love about volleyball?" she asks. "Every element of it is amazing and fun. There's an adrenaline rush both on and off the court and it's so intense that you can look on and see all the players' emotions and feel connected to them. I love it."
Within a year, she was representing her country alongside players twice her age.
"I still am the youngest player on the team but it's always been something I'm used to. It wasn't so bad because we have a friendly group of girls who helped me to feel comfortable and develop my skills. For me, it was more like looking at them as role models and not being afraid of them."
After finishing Form Five at St Joseph's Convent San Fernando, Thompson opted to pursue a professional career, signing a three-year contract with the Polish club AZS Bialystok.
"It's not something that everybody will agree with, but that's one of the things that really motivates me to succeed; to prove to people that I made a good decision. I have seen the standard of living which volleyball can bring and it drives me to work hard."
Thompson believes that big things are in store for the current crop of national players though she noted they would need more than commitment and talent to compete with the best in the world.
"There's just not enough funding," she pointed out. "The national team has to fight for training time, gym time and therapy. Everybody needs time to be able to work on their personal game, but when you have four hours maximum per day, you can't do that... Once we have those things our volleyball will improve because we already have the expertise of the coaches it's just a matter of being able to implement them with the proper facilities."
On a positive note, she said she had witnessed an increased interest in the sport in recent times, spurred on by television coverage and the introduction of school programmes across the country.
"TV is building awareness. It's a beautiful sport so all we really need is exposure. Once people come out and see what it's about, I think they will develop a passion for it."
T&T's women are currently ranked 32nd in the FIVB Senior World Ranking though Thompson aims to take them in to the top five by the time she retires. She is looking forward to making the journey with her close knit teammates.
"We are a family. We've been training for several years and both on and off the court we have a connection. Like family, we have our disagreements but what's important is that we've always been able to work past them, understand each other better and not allow our external problems to affect us on the court."