© Twila Federica Muzzi
Trinidadian Pro cyclist and two-time U23 Pan American Champion Teniel Campbell is only 23 but has three pro stage wins (Tour of Thailand and Kreic Breizh Elite Dames), Olympic qualification and a new contract with Team BikeExchange to her name. However, don’t be fooled into thinking it’s been an easy ride for the talented cyclist.
From training at 5am before school to being denied funding for the 2017 Caribbean Championships (from which she returned with two gold medals), Teniel has overcome countless hurdles to achieve her cycling dream. After being talent-spotted and invited by UCI president David Lappartient on a scholarship to the World Cycling Centre in Switzerland in 2018, Teniel has continued to pursue her cycling goals with relentless drive and a smile on her face.
I’m thrilled that Teniel, who is based in Girona, agreed to answer my questions about her journey to pro cyclist.
Your cycling started out as a hobby. When did you realise you had a talent for it?
After winning [the 2014] Junior Caribbean Road Cycling Championships in Suriname. I was pretty used to bowing my head and backpedalling when things got rough in a race. Hearing my national anthem play and the emotions it brought gave me a great desire to want more. Plus, it was only a couple months into training and racing a bike again – I believe [only] 6/7 months or so under local coach Elisha Greene and Ashton Williams. That was a cherry and a driving force to want more!
You had a strong work ethic from school age, training at 5am before school and also afterwards?
This made me extremely disciplined and tough from a young age! Of course, it was challenging but I never quit. I had good friends and teachers who pushed me to be the best in and out of the classroom.
What motivated you at such a young age?
I despise losing. I never complained about the training load or the stress from school. Yes, I did cry – a lot, actually – but it was always a ‘wipe the tears and keep going’ type of thing. Got it from my mama! I’m also surrounded by strong individuals and ‘you are what you surround yourself with’. I have a strong family! I watched them struggle, I listened to my mom cry at night and understood from a very young age the sacrifices she made in order to ensure my brother and I are comfortable and happy. Till this very day she still makes so many.
Same goes for my aunties and uncles. Family isn’t always blood and I fed off the mentality of the people I surrounded myself with. One core person I truly admired was my brother, Akil Campbell. I wanted to be like him. His grit and tenacity. I would love to see him living his European dream out here with me. I know it’s his desire and seeing me out here gives him and so many others a little bit more hope and belief that it’s possible. I’m just a bit nervous as to how long they will hold onto it! There isn’t a pathway for them back at home.
Other than that, when you want to be the best at everything you do, you make sacrifices. If that’s sacrificing hours of sleep and a normal teenage life so be it. I don’t like to party anyways. Only love to hit the road for carnival!
It seems like you overcame a lot of hurdles early on in your career. For example, your cycling federation chose not to fund your trip to the 2017 Caribbean champs?
The CEO of my local club/manager at that time, Desmond Roberts, funded the trip. I was told that the Trinidad and Tobago Cycling Federation believed I was not worth it, it was wasted funds and that I was not even capable of medalling. “It’s a hilly circuit and Teniel Campbell cannot climb, what’s the point of sending her?” – that was, apparently, the comment of some executive member. Not that it bothered me, people are entitled to their own opinions.
In the end, the series of events [after last-minute funding from Desmond Roberts] included midnight packing of bikes and booking airline tickets, literally rushing home to pack, returning to the airport to catch an 8am or so flight, racing the TT the following day and winning by a big margin – I think 1’30” – then [winning] the road race by approximately 3 bike lengths. That was followed by a golden ticket two months after to train at the UCI HQ in Aigle, Switzerland.
Arriving at the UCI HQ on your World Cycling Centre scholarship in Switzerland you went from an average 20C temperature to -14. What were the biggest learning curves you faced in moving to Europe?
- Accepting that I’m no longer the best. I must try, fail, then learn from my mistakes.
- Forcing myself out of my comfort zone when it came to climbing mountains, learning a new system and tolerating cold weather.
- Understanding the pressure of leadership and taking responsibility of not hitting team goals.
Three years later, you have three Pro stage wins to your name, U23 Pan American championship gold medals and a contract with Team BikeExchange – how are you feeling about your cycling as you look to the 2021 season?
I believe I am where I need to be at the moment. I do not force anything. I take things in [my] stride regardless of the amount of unnecessary pressure I apply to myself at times. I work extremely hard and always aim to be a student of my craft.
With determination, enthusiasm and consistency everything falls into place at the right timing. I can control my destiny, not my fate.
Your Instagram bio reads: “Your body only goes where your mind pushes it”. It seems like you’re pretty mentally resilient – is that a fair assessment?
The statement is the truth. The mind is the nuclei of the body. It controls everything. Nothing is achieved in your comfort zone. Your mental capacity goes hand in hand with your physical ability. If you want to see self-improvement you must push past your limits to constantly keep unlocking different levels of yourself.
It’s like a “story” on a video game. The first couple of phases are usually easy then you reach levels where you must constantly repeat before advancing. If you are not mentally strong [enough] to take the hits, look at things from a different angle and keep standing without the loss of enthusiasm, you’re most likely going to remain at that level.
Do you see yourself as a particular type of cyclist – sprinter, time triallist, future Classics winner – or are you keen not to label yourself?
I am no longer keen to label myself.
What are your hopes and dreams for your cycling future and beyond?
To become legendary/iconic. To stimulate the growth and development of cycling in Trinidad and Tobago, and by extension the Caribbean diaspora. A simple act of ‘paying it forward’.