She is part of the wave of "loners" that is sweeping over international pool decks: dedicated individuals from small countries that brave the froth of world class competition and prevail, sometimes without even a coach as support.
Indeed, 18 year-old Leah Martindale has started to attract some serious attention. Last summer in Atlanta, the native of Barbados became the second black woman ever* to make an Olympic final, placing fifth in the 50 freestyle (25.49), and setting two Commonwealth records on her way. Her short course time of 24.97 ranked her fourth in the world last year.
Her coach, Anil Roberts of Trinidad, says he spotted Martindale at a meet two and a half years ago and went and spoke to her mother. "I talked to her parents and told them that I thought their daughter could be good," he remembers. "They took the risk and sent her to train with me in Trinidad. In one year she went from a 1:02.65 100 freestyle to a 56.74. Her 50 improved from a 28.64 to a 26.12."
From the 1994 Commonwealth Games ("an experience meet," says Martindale) to the 1995 Pan Pacific Championships, to the Olympic Games, Martindale has continued to prove her coach right, improving in steady increments to be among the top eight in Atlanta.
But Roberts knew there was more where that came from. Martindale needed experience racing, and to get it, she needed to travel. Hence the decision to compete in the 1997 FINA Swimming World Cup.
According to her coach, Martindale's first World Cup experience accomplished many things, including learning to race repeatedly while tired. From Espoo (where she tied for second in the 50m freestyle) they travelled to Malmö, Glasgow, Gelsenkirchen, and Imperia, and often, just after her races, Martindale could be seen swimming a hard set in the warmdown pool. As the tour went on Roberts eased up slightly on the volume of work, and Martindale responded with her best in season performances: a victory in the 50 butterfly (27.5) and a bronze in the 50 freestyle (25.36) in Glasgow, followed by a gold in the 50 freestyle in Imperia (25.26), where she beat world record-holder Jingyi Le.
"I got a bit homesick in Germany and that was my worst meet," she smiles, "But Italy was my favourite, and I proved to myself that with the amount of work that I've done, I can beat (the Chinese)."
Extremely proud of his protegée, Roberts adds, "She's very shy. I've needed to work over 50% on her mind, and it's really working out. She's learning that once you've done all you can in training, the race is just to have fun."
While she is now able to channel some necessary aggression for a race, Martindale is, in fact, the image of modesty itself. Gentle and soft-spoken, she never fails to acknowledge those who have helped her to achieve her goals. "It was hard to leave Barbados at the time but my parents pushed me to go," she says, "I live with my coach's family, which helps, and now that I've made new friends I enjoy it a lot. I thank God, my family, my coach and my friends—they've really helped me to do it."
Martindale's work ethic also has something to do with it—she trains seven days a week, "even Sunday." During heavy training she can go as far as 10 km a day, with weights three times a week.
And while Martindale has made the big time, no one imagines what it took to get her there.
"Where we train (in Port of Spain) there are no blocks or lane ropes," Roberts explains, "When she practices starts I have to turn over a big flower pot and hold it so she can stand on it. We go to Barbados often to get into a 50 metre pool."
And who foots all the bills?
"Her parents finance most of her travel," said Roberts. "We did an altitude camp in Mexico last year and a camp in Jacksonville before the Olympics. Her Dad's been making it possible but it's becoming a bit of a strain."
Of the Olympic Games, Martindale says, "It was enjoyable and very exciting. It felt good to be a representative of the Black people."
Coming from a family of professionals (Dad is a lawyer, Mom is a nurse, and her sister is a doctor), Martindale is not sure yet where her future lies. Maybe physiotherapy, maybe sport psychology, or law...for now she has finished the British high school system and is "devoted to swimming until the year 2000." She relaxes by watching movies, reading, and "liming," an island word for hanging out with friends.
NOTE: The first black woman to be an Olympic finalist was Enith Brigitha, of the Dutch Antilles, who swam for Holland and finalled at the 1972 Olympics. She went on to win a bronze medal in the 400m freestyle at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.