To get to the field where Jeannelle Scheper practiced in St. Lucia, she’d walk alone through a rough area, especially uneasy because there’s a “stigma towards light-skinned people” like her, she said.
At the cricket field — not ideal for practicing the high jump since the grass edges are slanted downward — Scheper said she’d have to hurry to pull the mats to flatter ground. If the grass was muddy, there was no way to salvage the practice day.
Though there’s a nice stadium an hour from Scheper’s home, it was converted to a hospital because one of the hospitals on the Caribbean island burned down.
When Scheper came to South Carolina and realized how poor the facilities in St. Lucia are in comparison, her personal ambitions gained a broader purpose. As the SEC Indoor Championships approach on Friday, Scheper is jumping as a representative of the Gamecocks, but also as one for St. Lucia, where she hopes to influence change.
“From the time I left to come to school here, all my coaches were telling me, ‘Don’t be like previous athletes,’” she said. “We’ve had a few great athletes that have gone to school, but most of them stay abroad, don’t come back and don’t give anything back. They were just telling me to not be like them. I don’t have that type of personality.”
Having graduated high school at 16, Scheper’s family wanted her to wait a year before going to college. After a pastor told Scheper’s mother he had a vision of Scheper being an accomplished high jumper, she felt comfortable with Scheper enrolling at USC six months earlier.
The move came with expected culture shock. Teammates had to remind her the buffet at the Dodie Academic Center would still be there in the morning because she wasn’t accustomed to the variety. She still eats with two utensils in her hand, using both a fork and a knife for foods such as rice.
As a 16-year-old on a college campus, Scheper caused concern for her coaches. High jump coach Delethea Quarles said the staff felt responsible to protect Scheper’s “youth and innocence.”
“As a coach, we wear several hats with our athletes,” Quarles said. “With her, you just kind of had another lookout because she was a minor. Certain things that we wouldn’t normally ask, we felt responsible to at least try to know what’s going on in her social life and just to keep her on the right path.”
With a seven-person coaching staff, indoor and outdoor track facilities, Scheper experienced a second culture shock with the better facilities. She went from training once or twice a week in St. Lucia to five to six times a week at South Carolina. She got anemia soon after she arrived on campus, feeling weak after practices.
Scheper’s coach in St. Lucia focused on power, not speed, so her approach to a jump was five steps, a strange sight compared to most American high jumpers with long approaches. Because of her youth, Quarles and head track coach Curtis Frye didn’t think her body was strong enough to handle a longer approach. A revamped weight room program last spring helped her lengthen it and higher jumps followed.
“Everything she does, she makes it look so easy, but it’s not that easy at all,” sophomore high jumper Chalese Davis said.
Despite the bumps in the road, she became a two-time All-American, and earlier this month, she jumped 6 feet, 3¼ inches — the best in the NCAA this season — in the Tyson Invitational. Quarles said Scheper already exceeded her expectations in her junior season, so they had to make new ones. Being an SEC champion is next on the list.
“She’s been the bridesmaid,” Frye said. “She’s never been the champion in the SEC, so she’s getting ready to get into new land.”
On a recent bus ride back to Columbia, Frye and Scheper discussed her future. He said she’s a “long ways” from being competitive on an Olympic level because she’s shorter than most professional high jumpers, but he doesn’t rule it out.
She is considering getting a masters in International Business because it could be used to help create jobs in St. Lucia, where she was named the 2012 Junior Sportswoman of the Year at the St. Lucia National Sports Award Ceremony this past weekend.
“Whatever I end up doing, it’s going to have some sort of impact on sports in St. Lucia,” Scheper said. “I’m going to find a way to give back because at the end of the day, that’s where it started and that’s where it happened. In order for anything to change, someone has to make the difference.”