Some people just seem to excel at any athletic endeavor they attempt. They can pick up a tennis racket once a year and beat you in straight sets, or move with such grace and fluidity on the field that the amazed spectator mumbles superlatives under his breath. One who fits this description is shot-putter Debbie St-Phard, the oldest daughter of two of Haiti's former national athletes and an outstanding competitor in her own right.
Beneath her pearly Caribbean smile and Grace Jones haircut, St-Phard packs a lot of power and talent into her 5 ft. 10 in., 205-lb. frame. Recently she showed why she is Princeton University's ``Sportswoman of the Year,'' when she earned All-American status at the National Collegiate Athletic Association women's track and field championships in Baton Rouge, La.
Heading into the competition, St-Phard was seeded seventh among the contenders. ``Personally I was hoping to take sixth place at the meet,'' she recounted after a personal-best toss of 54 ft. 4 in. lifted her into third place.
Having graduated from Princeton this spring, St-Phard is taking the next year off to train in hopes of competing in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul - not for the American team, but for her native Haiti. Although she has lived in the United States for most of her life, she has chosen to remain a Haitian citizen, never applying for American citizenship, but retaining a legal immigration ``green card.''
How she came from her Caribbean island home to be a first-rate shot-putter in the United States is a story in itself. When only six months old, she was forced to flee Haiti with her family. At that time Glodys St-Phard, her father, who was a practicing psychiatrist and involved in Haitian politics, publicly spoke out against then-president Francois (Papa Doc) Duvalier's dictatorial government.
Dr. St-Phard saw his name on a list of ``people to be imprisoned or executed,'' and his family was ``told to disappear,'' according to his daughter.
``People in power knew that he posed a threat to their positions,'' she says. In 1986 Dr. St-Phard moved back to Haiti to practice psychiatry and in March was named Haitian ambassador and special envoy to the United Nations.
``I am somewhat of an anomaly in the sports world,'' the younger St-Phard says. ``I consider myself an American athlete because this is the only place I've competed and trained.''
``But, she explains, referring to her Haitian nationality, ``I have a whole other culture inside of me that is brought out.''
She also has quite a family background in sports. Her father threw the shot for the Haitian national team in the 1950s, while her mother competed in the long jump, high jump, and hurdles.
Last summer St-Phard visited Haiti and spoke with the Haitian Olympic Committee about her prospects to represent her homeland at this month's Pan American Games in Indianapolis as well as the '88 Olympics.
``I talked with the committee about what I'd done and they've committed themselves [to sending me] to the Pan Am Games [Aug. 7-23],'' St-Phard says. She also feels confident that she will join the Olympic team.
``I feel they are well intentioned, and I hope they stand by their word. To compete for my country was impossible for me during [Baby Doc] Duvalier's regime because my family was not involved in any way with the government,'' she says.
Former Olympic coach Larry Ellis of the Princeton coaching staff says, ``The Haitian Olympic team would be crazy not to send her....''
Fred Samara, Princeton's coach and a 1976 Olympic decathlete, agrees. ``She has the qualities of any good athlete: she listens well, she is a hard worker, she is able to accept criticism. She has made much improvement this year.''
But it has taken more than just one year to reach All-American status.
``I attribute my success to good coaching,'' St-Phard adds. ``My technique has improved tenfold since junior high school.''
Her potential began to surface as a senior in high school, when she decided to quit ``goofing around'' as a four-sport athlete and concentrate on mastering her throwing techniques. As a result, she graduated as the Louisiana state high school champion in both the shot put and discus events.
At this stage in her career, St-Phard spends about four hours a day at the track working out by doing bounding and leg exercises, agility drills, crossovers, and throwing her shot. She lifts weights four days a week and throws a medicine ball for year-round training.
``There are two attitudes you can take during workouts: one is actively thinking and correcting all the time. The other is thinking of other things on your mind,'' she emphasizes.
``You can work on technique so much that technique becomes the means and not the end. I have to stop thinking of technique because I get paralysis by analysis. It takes the gut, raw instinct of throwing.''
As accomplished as she is athletically, St-Phard makes time for other activities, too.
``I am as multidimensional as I can be. I didn't come to Princeton with the intention of becoming an athlete,'' she says. ``My academic, musical, athletic, and religious life are all of equal importance.''
For example, she often literally flew from track meets to singing engagements with the Tigressions, a Princeton women's a cappella vocal group, often changing her clothes on the plane.
Also, when St-Phard is not competing, working out, singing, or traveling back and forth, she is likely to be spending time with children. As part of her psychology major, she did her junior independent study project on child abuse, and she makes a habit of ``paying attention to kids,'' she says.
Hoping to have a career in psychiatry, she believes that more ``attention should be placed on the youth for society to function well.'' Focusing on problem populations in America, she wants to work to try to minimize effects of abuse on abused children.