Abrahamson: Tenth, sad but not disappointed -- because the love of family is so sweet

Posted at 6:07 AM, Aug 03, 2021

TOKYO — Tyra Gittens, who competes for Trinidad and Tobago, finished 10th Tuesday in the women’s long jump, a blip in the frenzy of sports and more on a given day at these Tokyo Olympics.

This was likely just the warmup act for the Paris 2024 Games three years from now. There, many consider her  — in the way that Puerto Rico’s Jasmine Camacho-Quinn won the 100-meter hurdles here Monday — to emerge as one of the Caribbean’s next big track and field stars.

Though Givens competes for Trinidad, she went to college at Texas A&M. She went to high school and middle school in Nashville. Her father, Sterling, is a skilled musician. Her brothers, now in Los Angeles, are talented musicians. Another brother, with whom Tyra was exceptionally close, died just before he turned 13. Tyra’s mother, Debra, runs a cleaning service and the Givens children, Tyra included, have pitched in to help clean toilets. To help raise money to get Tyra to meets so she could one day, maybe, get to the Olympics, the family would hold all kinds of fundraisers, like baking and selling cupcakes, with friends — including one of Debra’s good friends, Amy Grant. That Amy Grant.

“I think it’s so beautiful that she has found the spotlight that has always been hers,” Grant, the singer and songwriter, said of Tyra Gittens. 

In a telephone interview, Grant went on, “She is from such a beautiful family.”

Since Tyra has been in Japan, Debra said, “We have FaceTime calls. Literally three times a day. That’s the kind of close we are talking about.”

Tyra Gittens competes in the Women's Long Jump final on day eleven
TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 03: Tyra Gittens of Team Trinidad And Tobago competes in the Women's Long Jump final on day eleven of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 03, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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Sterling, 62, and Debra Givens, 51, are parents of seven children. Six are still alive. Debra gave birth to six; they adopted one. Debra is entirely upfront about how the two of them, husband and wife, made a lifetime vow to each other — and to the notion of family — that neither came to the marriage with, and despite circumstances that would have broken people with less resolve and character.

Sterling’s mom gave birth to him when she was 14. Debra comes from a single-parent home as well; her father left her mother when she, Debra, was a toddler: “I learned a lot from my mom but because he was missing, he left when I was 2, I always had daddy issues. Like most women raised without their dad, we did not want that.”

She had said a moment before, referring to her husband, “When we got together, one, divorce was not going to be an option. We did not know what we were doing. We knew what not to do. We never saw it modeled what marriage or parenting was about. Our parents did the best they could and we had, especially me, a mother who taught me to be a strong and independent woman. My mother,” she said, “feared God as a Christian.”

She added a moment later, “Everybody thinks, ‘Oh, you guys are this perfect family. I knock that down every time. Like we have something they don’t that explains why our kids seem to make good choices. My husband and I came from single-parent homes. There is no manual. We didn’t know what to do. We parent from knowing what not to do. I think that can be more of an example, more of a motivation, of knowing what to do.”

The oldest is Caroline Haynes, 41. Then come brothers Sterling Jr., 31, and Will, 29. Daughter Nikki is 27. Tyra is 23. Nisi is 18.

Michael, between Nikki and Tyra, had cerebral palsy. Michael and his younger sister were about two years apart in age and, Debra said, extremely close. Tyra walked at nine months and, when Michael saw what she could do, he started trying, too. Tyra would do almost everything for Michael. She would, for instance, speak for him — Tyra wants a cookie and Mikey does, too. 

There’s an oft-told family story about how Tyra, when she was still very little, came running into the kitchen and slipped on some water that had leaked out of the refrigerator. Michael howled with laughter. Tyra picked herself up and did it again. More laughter. Repeat, laughter, repeat, laughter, and over and over. 

Michael Gittens died six days before he turned 13, in August 2009. “Tyra, it affected most of all,” Debra said. “She was so close to him.”

Michael Gittens, his mother says now, “brought our kids things that we couldn’t teach — tolerance, absolute tolerance, patience …my boys are the incredible men they are now because of my son, Michael, and what Michael was able to teach all of us about unconditional love.”

Sterling Jr. and Will live now in Los Angeles. Will was a contestant on Season 6 of The Voice; one of his songs, Zodiac, was recently used in a TikTok by Jason Statham and went viral, a PR release saying it had racking up well over 100 million views. 

SEE MORE: Germany's Malaika Mihambo swipes women's long jump gold on final leap; USA's Reese takes silver

When the Gittens children were young, they lived in Trinidad. When Tyra was middle school age, the family moved to Nashville — the father is a famed name in Trinidad music circles, and he got work in the States as a gospel singer and music producer.  Debra opened a cleaning business, Sterling Clean. 

Debra still has many of the same clients from when the business opened 20 years ago, and here’s why — if the mantle needs dusting, the rule is that all the objects need to picked up, not just dusted around. Why? 

Excellence in all things.

Because this is how we change the world. 

In the choices we make. 

Grant said, referring to Debra Gittens, “We are both dynamic women who want the world to be different because we are in it.”

“I wanted,” Debra said, “to model a standard of excellence for our children when they worked at our business. Including cleaning toilets.”

“The things I learned from working with my parents — the kind of integrity to do that job,” Tyra Gittens said. “It’s amazing. My mom is a humble woman. By meeting my mom, you would never know. She is very educated. 

“Still to this day,” she said, “I would drop anything for my family. My parents are my world. My family is my world.”

When he was younger, Tyra Gittens’ father had a thing for track. When it turned out that his daughters did, too, they could — and would — spend hours together just having fun, doing drills, running around. 

Especially Tyra — her family nickname as a little girl was Squirrel. (And maybe still with her father.) After Scrat, the saber-tooth squirrel from the movie Ice Age. 

“I had a passion for track,” Tyra said. “All the other stuff, I was maybe good at it. I had a passion for track.”

“We have a sign on our street that says, ‘Congratulations, Tyra Gittens, Olympian 2021,” Debra said. “And people are coming up to us and saying, ‘Is that the girl who used to run up and down the street?’ They remember her running up and down the street with her dad.”

In high school, she set all kinds of records. Same at Texas A&M. 

Truth be told, she might be better at the heptathlon — the multi-event discipline — than the long jump. 

But it was in the long jump that Tyra Gittens qualified for the Olympics, and here in Tokyo she made the final.

Late Tuesday, reflecting on her 10th place finish, she said, “I wish it could have gone better. But everything happens for a reason.

She explained that out by the runway she felt like she did when she was a freshman at A&M. “I didn’t have the experience all the seniors and juniors had. 

“It was an amazing experience. I’m glad I have an Olympic final under my belt.”

She said she had already been in touch — of course — with everyone back home, adding, “Everyone loves their family. Not everyone can have the kind of connections I have with my family.

“I’m sad,” she said. “But I’m not disappointed.”