Donned in a loose-fitting gray tee, her hair in pigtails, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, the athletic superstar otherwise known as “Pocket Rocket” (or “Mommy Rocket” since the birth of her son) welcomes me into her home, on the other side of a Zoom screen.
At 9am, I could logically assume that she has just woken up— but a glossy face and sweaty brow depict an entirely different story— she’s been training since 4:30am.
When we wrap up, she says she’ll head to the gym for another two hours.
And then— unbeknownst to her— as we discuss her diet and training regimen, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce matter of factly drops what I consider to be a major bombshell.
“I am not a yam girl at all. I don’t really like yam. I will eat it but I am more about dumplings and rice… and porridge. I drink a lot of porridge.“
Any follower of global track and field would be remiss not to recognize the prominent elephant in the room… Olympic gold medalist, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce does not attribute her athletic prowess to any specific diet or combination of foods— and specifically not yam.
In 2008, when Usain Bolt broke the 100-meter world record at the Olympics in Beijing, his father attributed his victory to “the power of yams” and the presses all but stopped. Everyone wanted to get their hands on some Jamaican yams, ideally from his home parish of Trelawny.
Like her Jamaican counterpart, Fraser-Pryce has been heralded as one of the greatest sprinters of all time.
Having won more international 100-meter titles than any female athlete in history, the five-foot ‘towering’ Pocket Rocket has been open about her journey overcoming poverty and acute food insecurity— transforming what she depicts as a crippling source of childhood shame into a source of empowerment and strength.
“Where I am now, I never thought in my whole life I’d be here,” she says in a candid and vulnerable discussion, which takes place days before she is set to depart for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Shelly, as she is called by her fellow Jamaicans, with her black, green and gold athletic uniforms, neon wigs and colorful nails has become a real life superhero and inspiration to many young athletes in her native Jamaica. But unlike cartoon superheroes, her secret is not in some fancy elixir or super food, but in a traditionally balanced diet, hard work and tenacity.
Fraser-Pryce’s life offers the possibility that it is grits and fortitude in the face of struggle— and not yams— that build the heart of the lion.
But it would take her years to get here.
As a chronically food insecure child, what Shelly ate— and didn’t eat— was often shrouded in secrecy.
“When I was much younger, I didn’t know I was poor,” she admits. “We lived in one room, but I was OK. I was comfortable with the situation until I got to high school.”
She paints a picture of her childhood home, a one-bedroom house that she shared with her mother Maxine, a street vendor, in a tenement yard (or multi-family plot of houses) among her aunts, uncles and cousins in the Western Kingston ghetto of Waterhouse.
With no dining room or dining table, she would congregate with family members for meals in a shared yard, squatting on a turned-over paint bucket, eating food made of one or more affordable ingredients.
“Our diet was limited and very repetitive,” she describes. “One of the dishes I would see over and over again was turned corn meal— even at Christmas time when my friends would be eating chicken and rice and peas. Many nights I went to bed with just bread and butter.”
As a child, Fraser-Pryce’s mother would send her to the corner shop every few days—where she would run of course— and wait for all of the patrons to leave before she approached the store operator, Ms Gloria with her mother’s shopping list for the week.
“I would never have enough money for everything on the list, and I didn’t want anyone to find out, so I would wait until everyone left,” she recalls. Ms Gloria would continue to ‘trust’ goods to her mother under what seemed to be an extremely generous and extended credit arrangement that ensured she was fed.
It was when she began secondary school at the Wolmer’s Trust High School for Girls, that it became glaringly obvious to her that her lifestyle was very different from that of her peers.
Shelly-Ann, then an eleven-year old student-athlete, was overcome by the shame of acute food insecurity.
“I would look at the kids with their packed lunch— some would have tuna sandwiches and lettuce— and to me it was so impressive. I considered it a privilege to carry lunch to school,” she says.
Being enrolled in the Wolmer’s breakfast program was yet another source of embarrassment. By accepting the free school meals that she so desperately needed, she felt exposed.
But given her high level of participation in school athletics, with time, the context that had forced her to become painfully aware of her impoverished circumstances also began to sustain her.
“When it was championship time, my school would give the athletes vitamins, Pediasure and cooked meals, such as chicken and rice. You could say my school kind of saved me,” she says.
Something else that would save her was the support of Jeanne Coke, of The Wolmer’s Old Girls’ Association, who became aware of Shelly-Ann’s situation and in recognizing her potential, began to fund her education, books, uniforms and meals.
“To have overcome everything that I have in my life to be here the way I have, it’s just crazy,” she says.
Fraser-Pryce looks back on her childhood and adolescence. Hers is the story of many young people— many student athletes in Jamaica today. The vast majority of whom will not be as lucky as she was to escape poverty and achieve their dreams on a global scale.
By embracing what could have easily become an overshadowed chapter of her life, Fraser-Pryce’s challenges motivated her prolific career and inspired the work of her Pocket Rocket Foundation, which she launched in 2013, to provide academic and athletic support to student-athletes in difficult financial situations.
“Growing up, with everything that I went through— not being able to get proper meals when I needed them, or not having uniforms or supplies for the new school year… It’s because of how these things impacted my childhood that I started this foundation,” she explains.
“There are so many student athletes who are going through what I did when I was growing up. I want to make sure that they don’t have to experience what I did. I want them to be able to balance being an athlete with academics.”
When she went off to University, Fraser-Pryce left the pain of hunger and food insecurity largely behind her. As an elite athlete she was provided with meals— many of the same foods that were given to her when she was a child by her mother.
“When I was in high school, I didn’t want to let people know what I was eating because I thought it made me look poor. When I was in college, the liver, the kidneys, the mackerel that my mother used to feed me— which I was so ashamed of— were what my coaches said would help to give me my edge as an athlete,” she laughs.
And as fate would have it, Shelly would come full circle. Turned corn meal happens to be one of her favorite foods.
“I’m still eating turned corn meal to this day because my husband makes it; he will put chicken in it, he will put everything in it; it makes me feel full, which does wonders for me with how hard I train,” she laughs.
Shelly-Ann’s husband Jason, who does not eat meat, is the cook of the household, entrusted with the important job of feeding Shelly-Ann and their four-year-old son, Zyon.
Although she admits that she could eat chicken for every meal, her favorite food is ackee and salt fish, which she frequently pairs with fried dumplings or rice and butter beans.
“I’m not very strict about my diet,” she says.
Shelly-Ann candidly discloses her relaxed diet, which includes pasta, rice, dumplings and bananas. And, sometimes she will even eat yams— if forced to do so.
“I eat ground provisions because I am forced to,” she laughs. “My husband says I need to eat them.”
Fraser-Pryce says that while many athletes would rather go hungry due to restrictive diets, she will eat whatever is offered to her when she travels to sporting events.
“My coach has always said, as an athlete, as I travel all over the world, I am not eating for taste, I am eating to compete. I’ve seen athletes go to meets and they can’t get what they want so they won’t eat. I will eat whatever is there,” she explains.
The many challenges that Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce experienced as a child have endowed her with amenability, perseverance and resilience.
At the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, despite coming a fraction of a second short in her bid to win a desired third 100-meter Olympic gold, Fraser-Pryce celebrated her Silver medal with Gold medalist and fellow-Jamaican, Elaine Thompson-Herah and Bronze-medalist and fellow-Jamaican Shericka Jackson, while acknowledging her own disappointment with honesty and poise.
“The anthem will play and today that credit goes to the defending Olympic Champion Elaine! I gave it my best and grateful to have made it to the final,” she said.
And on August 6th, when Fraser-Pryce, Thompson-Herah, Jackson and Briana Williams won gold in the women’s Olympic 4×100 meter relay, finishing clear of the United States and Britain and earning them a national record, Fraser Pryce said, “Look at us, beautiful, strong and fast… We continue to show the world [that] we are more than our past or our gender. If you’re just starting, changing events, or dealing with setbacks… Be extraordinary and commit to your personal best because this could be you one day.”
Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce is a five-foot force of nature with an unbridled fire.
She is the relentless fight of a mother who made it happen for her daughter, no matter what the odds. She is the tenacious girl who grew up eating turned cornmeal on a paint bucket in a tenement yard in St. Andrew. She is the heartbeat of an island called Jamaica and a voice for little girls who deserve so much more but more often than not, never get what they deserve.
A victory for Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce is a victory for us all.
“At the end of life what will matter is not what we bought but what we built. Not our success but our significance.”— Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce