'Somebody pinch me': Yellowknife mother overcomes adversity to raise an Olympian

Carlene Smith is getting ready to watch her 24-year-old son, Akeem Haynes, compete in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Just 12 years ago, Smith and her son were sleeping on a mattress on a friend’s basement floor.

Carlene Smith gets ready to watch son, track star Akeem Haynes, compete in Rio

Carlene Smith is getting ready to cheer on her son, 24-year-old track star and Olympian, Akeem Haynes. (submitted by Carlene Smith)

After overcoming a tumultuous past, Carlene Smith could not be more grateful for the opportunity to watch her 24-year-old son compete in the 2016 Olympic Games from her home in Yellowknife.  

"It's like somebody pinch me, am I still alive?" said a tearful Smith.

Just 12 years ago, Smith and her son were sleeping on a mattress on a friend's basement floor while Smith worked multiple jobs trying to make ends meet. 

Today, Haynes is a member of Team Canada in the men's 100-metre sprint and the men's 4x100m relay with fellow Canadian heavyweights Andre De Grasse and Aaron Brown.

Humble beginnings

Smith and Haynes moved to Yellowknife from their home in Jamaica in 1998 to be with family that had already relocated.

"Akeem thought the snow on the ground was salt," said Smith with a laugh.

An athlete from an early age, Haynes excelled at soccer at Yellowknife's Weledeh Catholic School, which he attended until he and his mother moved to Calgary in 2004.

Haynes (second from left, bottom row) poses with fellow soccer teammates at Yellowknife's Weledeh Catholic School. (submitted by Carlene Smith)

Smith says that's when things really got tough.  

"I left [for Calgary] with someone and when we got there, he kind of put us out, in the height of winter."

With nowhere to go, Smith turned to a friend for help, sleeping with Haynes on the friend's basement floor for months.

Eventually, family and friends pitched in to get the pair a place of their own, but Smith credits her son for getting her through that time.

"Akeem is my rock, he's been the shoulder that I cry on, and he always encourages me never to give up."

Smith said she always made her son a priority — even selling nearly everything they owned in Calgary so he could go on a high school football trip to St. Louis.

"That's when he made his promise to me. He said 'Mom, I promise I will become somebody.'"

Smith poses with Haynes in Edmonton before leaving for Rio. (submitted by Carlene Smith)

An Olympian in the making

While Haynes spent most of his high school career in Calgary playing football, the star running back's speed was noticed by Olympic coach Stuart McMillan, who started training with him.

"Akeem just took off from there," says Smith.

Haynes was named to the Olympic team as part of the 4x100m relay for London 2012, but did not actually compete at the Games.

However, it's expected that Haynes will compete this year.

In March, Haynes led off a Canadian relay team that posted the world's fastest time in 2016, though it has since been broken by a British team.

Akeem Haynes takes part in the 100-meter men's final at the Canadian Track and Field Olympic Trials in Calgary in 2012. (Todd Korol/Reuters)

According to Smith, who moved back to Yellowknife two years ago, Haynes is more than excited.

"We talk every day [from Rio], and he's loving it. He's like, 'Mom I'm ready, I'm ready for this.'"

Smith says she may be more nervous than her son.

The 100-metre sprint qualifiers take place Saturday. She plans to celebrate, regardless of how things turn out. 

"All he can do is go out there and give it his best, and whether he comes back with anything or not, I'll be proud of him."

Until then, Smith is busy cooking up her son's favourite foods to serve her family in Yellowknife as they watch the race.

"We'll have curry chicken and rice and peas, and ice cream. Akeem loves ice cream."

About the Author

Rachel Zelniker

Rachel Zelniker is a current affairs radio associate producer with CBC Saskatchewan in Regina. Find her on Twitter @rzelniker or email rachel.zelniker@cbc.ca.