| SALVO, North Carolina
SALVO, North Carolina These are special times for sprinters from the small Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago.
No country, big or small, has produced 100 meters times faster this year than the marks of young Trinidadians Richard Thompson and Kelly-Ann Baptiste.
Students at Louisiana State University (LSU), the pair have sprinted to the top of the 2008 world-leader list with sparkling early-season times, although Thompson now has company. Both he and Churandy Martina of the Netherlands Antilles have run 10.00 seconds with Martina's mark at altitude.
Baptiste clocked a national-record 11.06 seconds.
"That both of us are from the same country is a bit of a coincidence," the 22-year-old Thompson told Reuters in a telephone interview from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, "but I think we owe most of our success to the great program and the expertise of the coaches here at LSU."
Both sprinters won National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) indoor 60 meters titles prior to leading the outdoor rankings for the young season.
Thompson also equaled the year's fastest 60 meters time, running 6.51 seconds to share world-leader honors with world champion Olusoji Fasuba of Nigeria.
"It brings a lot of pride to me and a lot of other people," Trinidadian Ato Boldon, who won Olympic sprint medals in 1996 and 2000, told Reuters by telephone from Los Angeles.
"I have always said Trinidad has as much talent as any other island but they don't always end up in the right place and they don't always follow through," said Boldon, now a television analyst and the sprint coach of Saudi Arabia's Olympic team.
"These are two young talented people in the right place at the right time and they are doing well. And they are injury free."
The latter fact is key for the 21-year-old Baptiste, who missed part of last season with a fractured vertebra.
"I thought she would have an NCAA (outdoor) title by now but between injuries and some freak occurrences...a bee stung her one year," Boldon said. "But I think this year can be her year.
"That would be amazing to have both NCAA champions from Trinidad. I don't think even the Jamaicans pulled that off."
Comparisons with the Jamaicans, long successful on the world scene, seem to resonate through the Caribbean and Boldon takes up the theme when talking about Thompson.
"I call him the Trinidadian Asafa Powell," said Boldon, referring to the Jamaican 100 meters world record holder.
"He (Thompson) is six feet two inches tall but he is able to start like someone who is a lot shorter. He has very good pickup for someone that size," Boldon said. "I broke his Texas 10-flat down on film and was really, really impressed.
"Nobody ever ran that fast that early in college."
Baptiste first drew Boldon's serious attention at the Caribbean junior championships in Tobago in 2005.
"Kelly passed us at 30 meters and she was still in her drive phase," Boldon said. "None of the women in the professional ranks...typically can hold their body down that long.
"We just kind of looked at each other and said 'A star is born'. She is very compact, very powerful, very disciplined. "She is also the best start in the collegiate ranks."
So what does it mean for the Olympic hopes of a nation where Hasely Crawford raised world awareness with his 100 meters gold in 1976?
"Certainly he (Thompson) should make the finals at Beijing," Boldon said. "If he could do that he can certainly upset a lot of bigger names."
Baptiste, who ran on the Trinidad and Tobago 4x100 meters relay team at the 2004 Athens Olympics, should also be a finalist and maybe more, Boldon said.
"I would think her just making the final in Beijing for somebody who ran 11.06 to open, that would almost be a letdown," he said.
Both must qualify for Beijing at the Trinidad and Tobago national championships in late June.
Thompson will concentrate on the 100 meters while Baptiste may attempt both the 100 and 200.
"I am very proud to be carrying on the tradition of strong sprinting by athletes from the Caribbean, especially as a female," said Baptiste. "When people hear about (sprinting in) Trinidad and Tobago...they never can single out the female athlete that put themselves out there to be honored and respected by the rest of the Caribbean or the world.
"I am trying to leave a mark to help the others behind me raise up to that potential."
Thompson, who chats frequently with Boldon, has similar ambitions.
"For a little Caribbean guy he (Boldon) was able to show that a guy from Trinidad and Tobago was capable of really doing well on the international scene. I just want to follow in his footsteps," Thompson said. "I feel really proud to have put my country on the map."
(Editing by Clare Fallon)