Njisane Phillip, cycling’s Soca Warrior

Remember Njisane Phillip? At the 2012 London Olympics, he was the revelation of the velodrome, a muscular, red-clad dreadnought who challenged the world’s best track sprinters.


It took an imperious Jason Kenny to knock him out in the semi-final, and the unheralded youngster was narrowly edged out for the bronze medal by Eddy Dawkins. Nevertheless, it was an astonishing underdog performance, beating many sprinters with vast experience and backing, on a parallel to the Trinidad & Tobago football team, nicknamed “The Soca Warriors”,  qualifying for the 2006 World Cup.


Four years later, Phillip is back in town for the London Six Day as one of six competing sprinters. “I really enjoy getting to come back and relive those memories here,” he says.


When you mention ‘track sprinter’ in his athletics-mad homeland, most will think of national icon Ato Boldon or Jamaican megastar Usain Bolt. Yet Phillip, diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) as a teenager, found that his energy was better used on two wheels.


Introduced to the sport by his father, he left school at 17 to train at the UCI World Cycling Centre in Aigle. Phillip is accustomed to being a lone wolf at international races, competing without an entourage of coaches and mechanics. Similarly, he says he has never received his full TTD$250,000 (£30,000) annual allotment of funding. It’s a far cry from the support received by the likes of Great Britain and Australia’s track stars.


The 2016 Olympics was Phillip’s raison d’être, but it was a rough road from London to Rio for the raw talent. He was hospitalised in January 2014 with bad stomach pain and damaged kidneys.


After fulfilling the qualification demands for the Rio Games, the build-up was dominated by disputes with the Trinidad and Tobago Cycling Federation (TTCF). Its president, Richard Ferrier, is a volunteer; there is no official national coach and precious little funding. Sometimes Phillip would arrive at the island nation’s only indoor velodrome to find it closed.


He accepted an invitation to train with the Canadian national team and reunited with former mentor Erin Hartnell,  but three weeks before the Olympics there was a stand-off with TTCF when his friend and team-mate Varun Maharaj was pulled out of the team unexpectedly. The federation relented and reinstated him as soigneur.


Unsurprisingly, all this took a toll on Phillip. Weeks before Rio 2016, the 25-year-old announced that he would retire from cycling after the Olympics. “I cannot afford to give the TTCF another four years… I am not asking for a million dollars or a house. I am just asking for support,” he told Wired686.com. “Hire the proper coach, the proper staff and don’t be on this bullshit.”


At Rio, he qualified sixth fastest for the sprint, but was beaten in the knockout round and did not get through the repechage. Yet, here he is at the London Six, two months later, still racing – and smiling. What changed?


“I had time to sit down and really think about it. It was more emotional decisions than my real decisions. I was really in a bad place at the time and I just wanted to leave. But cycling is my life, I love it and I don’t think I’m ready to leave that too.”


“Sometimes it gets frustrating when someone is showing you love and support and wants to see you get to the next level,” Phillip says, elaborating on the low points he has endured. “But you can’t [get to the next level]. That’s what really gets me frustrated with my organisation. I live in a third-world country so I can’t really complain too much.


“But as I grow older, I get more mature and understand the situation. I just have to make the best of it, and I plan on doing that for the next four years.”


“My big goals are definitely to win [2018] Commonwealth Games, to win the world championships. And to win the Olympics. But I want to take it one step at a time, focus on Commonwealths first.”


You can’t accuse Phillip of being too conservative with his aims, but then track sprinters are an outgoing lot. The Trinidadian, who races with a gold chain and Only God Can Judge tattooed on his chest, is a lively presence on the track scene.


He warms up before racing listening to old-school Soca music and rap. On the London track for the day one keirin, he whipped up the crowd in the early laps, gesticulating for them to turn up the volume. They obliged, and he did too, winning the race with a fierce long-way-round acceleration. The man with T & T on his shorts apparently has TNT in his legs.


Phillip is happy to be back on track, doing what he loves. “This is a classy sport, a gentleman’s sport,” he says. “I want to thank the crowd for coming out, London is always a wonderful place … I like to interact with different people and travel the world. Being able to experience different cultures and different people is such a beautiful thing.”


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