New York’s Samyr Laine on Olympic mission to raise hope in Haiti

A Harvard grad and freshman roommate of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Laine prepares for Olympics as triple-jumper for Haiti



Published: Saturday, June 23, 2012, 9:50 PM\
 	Samyr Laine , who is competing at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London in the triple jump for Haiti, practices at George Mason University in Virginia, Thursday, June 7, 2012.

Elisa Miller for New York Daily News

Samyr Laine rooms with Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard and is the 14th person to sign onto the tech billionaire’s social network.


Richard Harbus/FOR nEW yORK DAILY NEWS



Richard Harbus/for New York Daily news

After graduating from high school, Laine earns a degree from Harvard.

Jacques and Evelyne Laine, parents of Samyr, outside of their Newburgh home with one of Samyr's trophies.  Photo by Richard Harbus

Richard Harbus/for New York daily News

Jacques and Evelyne Laine, parents of Samyr, show off some of Samyr’s trophies outside of their Newburgh home.

PÉTIONVILLE, Haiti — The Haitian Olympic Committee occupies two floors of a three-story building at 48 Rue Clerveaux. On the ground level sits the Bouchara Café, a vacant space that once housed an international restaurant owned by secretary general Alain Jean Pierre. Up the tiled steps in Pierre’s office, two cracks, remnants of the 2010 earthquake that registered a 7.0 on the Richter scale, run parallel, from ceiling to floor, along a cement wall. A glossy track and field calendar covers part of the open crevices.

“It was like a train was coming but you couldn’t get up,” Pierre says.

Fissures run deep into Haiti’s athletic foundation. Seven athletes aiming to qualify for the Olympics died in the collapse. Stade Sylvio Cator, the soccer venue named after the only Haitian to win an individual Olympic medal — silver for the long jump in 1928 — is operational but sits surrounded by rubble and razor wire in downtown Port-au-Prince.

Nearby, dirt tracks serve as the dusty homes of locals living under blue tarpaulin tents and rusting tin shacks.

“Everybody here was a victim,” Pierre says.

Relief filters into Pierre’s cell phone from Haiti’s greatest hope for a medal in the London Games. Samyr Laine, a triple jumper and Newburgh, N.Y. product whose parents emigrated from Haiti in the ’70s, sends regular text messages updating his training. Laine, 27, roomed with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg freshman year at Harvard, holds a Georgetown law degree and boasts the Haitian national record in the triple jump (17.39 meters). He reports his most recent mark from a U.S. Track and Field Regional on June 10 to Pierre: I jumped 16.98 yesterday so everything is going according to plan

Pierre dials Laine’s number and issues a demanding response.

“I need 17.5 for the gold,” Pierre says.

Laine leaps in isolation 1,500 miles away from the United Nations peacekeepers patrolling Haiti with rifles pointed toward the streets. Twice offered a full-time position by Shearman & Sterling, LLP, a firm in midtown Manhattan, Laine deferred both times, honing his hop, bound and jump phases in Lorton, Va. while competing for the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. He charges down single-lane, 50-meter runways from Bogota to Istanbul to Daegu to Doha hoping to land on a podium in London on Aug. 9.

“He is a jewel that has just exploded,” says Jean-Edouard Baker, the Haitian Olympic Committee president. “In great part, he was fortunate. His family left the country. He had the opportunity to build his skills and develop the talent in schools.”

In 2007, Laine first contacted the Haitian contingent. He posted a message on hurdler Nadine Parker’s fan page while she, too, represented her parents’ country in the Olympics despite being born in New York. Laine had never set foot on Haitian soil.

“I was shocked when he told me,” says Laine’s father, Jacques, who departed Haiti when he was 13 and the country was ruled by dictator Jean Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier. “I was like, ‘Why Haiti?’ He told me they needed people.”

Since Laine established his personal best in 2007, only two Team USA members have outdistanced him: Christian Taylor and Will Claye. Taylor unexpectedly won gold at the 2011 world championship with a 17.96-meter jump. Claye took bronze.

Laine plans to elevate Haitian athletics by laying the base for a sports community challenged by its lack of funds and facilities. There are no synthetic tracks in the Caribbean country of nine million people, and only one of the five athletes qualified to represent Haiti in London was born there. While children run barefoot through fetid fields, politicians promise progress. The International Olympic Committee intends to convert a 90-acre cow pasture into an all-sports center by 2013, but past and current members of the contingent caution that prior projects fell prey to politics.

“The infrastructure and misappropriation of things is the problem in a nutshell,” says Dudley Dorival, an Elizabeth, N.J. product who ran the 110-meter hurdles for Haiti in the Sydney, Athens and Beijing Olympics. “It’s sad, breaks my heart. Hopefully the committee will use the former athletes to build a stronger program. We all want a positive light on Haiti. There are athletes there. Why shouldn’t we compete at the highest level?”

Laine, meanwhile, draws the majority of his support stateside. He receives gear from Mizuno, volunteers as an assistant coach at George Mason University to gain access to the gym and tutors students for the SAT. He does clerical work at a chiropractor’s office and eats for free at Z Pizza, a restaurant chain that specializes in organic foods (Slogan: “Give your taste buds their 15 seconds of fame!”) He emailed the corporate office to request a sponsorship and the company provided him a house account.

“I’m pretty sure the cashier wonders who I am,” Laine says.

Social media offers reminders of potential earnings he has sacrificed.

Zuckerberg’s net worth is valued at more than $17.5 billion. Laine, the 14th person to sign onto Facebook, did not purchase stock in the company’s Initial Public Offering last month, but stays in contact with Zuckerberg.

“Mark never slept in college either,” Laine says.

Laine posts his jumps on Facebook, but the snapshots he receives from Haiti are darker. On a morning in mid-June, Pierre peers out his office window onto the tin roof of a single-level apartment across the street. In the back left corner lies a body. The man’s ankles and wrists are bound with plastic zip ties. Tape covers his mouth. Police gather in the yard as two men place the corpse in a black body bag. A crowded Toyota van drives down a nearby street; a multi-colored sticker on the windshield reads: “Jesus come back!”

* * *

On Friday, July 10, 2009, Laine, then a summer associate at Shearman & Sterling, awoke at 5 a.m., boarded the Metro North train near Newburgh, 70 miles north of Manhattan, and arrived at Grand Central Station an hour later. He walked eight blocks to Grand Central Station an hour later. He walked eight blocks to the corner of 53rd St. and Lexington Ave. and clocked in for his final day as an intern.

At 4 o’clock, Laine, toting a gym bag, punched out. He hopped the No. 7 subway train to Astoria, napped for 45 minutes in the hotel room of his girlfriend and training partner, Ayanna Alexander, and shed his suit for a singlet before riding to Icahn Stadium on Randall’s Island for the U.S. Track and Field Club Nationals. He failed to reach the mark he needed to qualify for the world championships in Berlin the first five times.

On the sixth and final attempt, friends clapped rhythmically. He flew through the phases, groaned and landed in the pit.

The judge measured it at 16.72 meters. He was Berlin bound.

“Take that off his resume and it’s still unbelievably impressive,” says Trisha Weiss, Shearman & Sterling’s director for legal recruiting. “Put it on, and it’s like, ‘Oh, this is legit.’ ”

Laine balanced books with athletics early on. His father’s edict — “if you eat today, you read today” — led him to the library, and translated well to a debate class in the seventh grade. He argued so convincingly that he was invited by Dartmouth and Northwestern to attend their summer camps. During the school year, he packed two buckets with research materials every Friday, and jumped on planes for Texas, Alabama and Maine for debate competitions. To perfect his delivery, he rehearsed in the shower.

“I would walk by, hear him and think, ‘Take a breath!’ ” his mother says.

Track and field offered a release. He joined the team as a distance runner in the seventh grade. He was so gangly that he needed a safety pin in the back of his singlet to tighten the fit, and trailed all runners in the mile, two-mile and steeplechase races.

“Truly the worst,” Laine says of the steeplechase. “I hate running in wet shoes. That was another life.”

He ran his last lap that season, taking up tennis when he failed to meet the mile standard the next year. After two tennis seasons he surprised his mother in a sneaker outlet store while on vacation in Myrtle Beach, S.C. when he picked up a pair of spikes from the clearance rack. He said he would ask the track coach if he could sprint and jump.

The technical elements of the triple jump intrigued Laine. He rented videotapes of world championship performances, reviewed them on television, pausing and rewinding to count steps in the jumper’s approach and measuring the strides. He lifted weights more aggressively, grew obsessive and basically refused to leave the Newburgh Free Academy sand pit.

“I’d have to chase him off the runway,” says Malcolm Burks, the school’s assistant track coach.

Laine’s father leveled any imbalance created by track’s hold on him. In order to stay on the team, the parents mandated that Laine maintain a 95 average in school. During the second quarter of Laine’s junior year, his work slipped to a 92. He was pulled from the winter track team, and did not jump again until he was a senior.

“I did not raise him to be an Olympian,” his father says. “I raised him to get an education.”

His education continued at the highest level. He was accepted to Harvard, enrolled and sent coach Jackie Hoover an email inquiring whether the 14 meters he jumped as a senior in high school — third-best in New York — was good enough for him to compete for the Crimson. Hoover welcomed his potential, and noted a willingness to attempt various events and “a ridiculously high pain threshold” when he bloodied his shin in a box jump drill. At a meet in Houston, he ran the 100 meters, only to watch the field fly by him.

“His legs weren’t even under him by the time the race was over,” Hoover says.

His jump improved seven feet at Harvard. He was voted a senior captain, but injury ended his Ivy League career during the spring of 2006. He graduated from Harvard with an undergraduate degree in government and an unused season of eligibility. To compete against better competition, he enrolled at the University of Texas in Austin, where he earned a master’s degree in kinesiology and broke down endless hours of tape with the Dartfish video analytics program, measuring angles, velocity and takeoff speeds, then incorporating the data into his training.

“At any time you knew he was capable of that one big jump,” says Texas multievents coach Mario Sategna.

Law school kept Laine in a classroom. He moved to northern Virginia, enrolled in Georgetown Law and connected with Skeeter Jackson, a former jumping dynamo who reached the U.S. Olympic trials in 1984 after playing center field in the Baltimore Orioles farm system.

Jackson had one question: “Do you think you’ll have the time?”

Laine insisted he would, and followed through, reading briefs and writing memos on the Metro before practice.


Elisa Miller for New York Daily News

Samyr Laine , who is competing in the triple jump for Haiti, trains at George Mason University.

Laine approached his dual lives with mutual exclusivity. He told no law teachers of his weekend trips to Europe and elsewhere for meets.

One day, in his Intellectual Property and World Trade class, Georgetown professor John Thomas asked Laine about the container of Muscle Milk on his desk. Laine said he was burning off calories outside.

“I thought he was some patent lawyer wannabe,” Thomas says.

Laine hasn’t set foot in the Shearman & Sterling law offices since he left as an intern, but he passed the New York bar examination last year and wrote a book that attempts to “demystify the challenges of law school.”

He has a literary agent, but the guide remains unpublished. Chapter Two is titled: “Why Class is Optional …Usually.”

* * *

The 90-acre lot in Croix-Des-Bouquets, a Port-au-Prince suburb known for its creative environment, is filled with tall grass and hot gravel and is dotted with cow waste.

Just off the two-lane roadway, five cinder blocks, held together with cement, stand alongside a grazing cow. Atop the stanchion lies a white rock that doubles as a cornerstone for the Olympic committee’s plan to develop a state-of-the-art facility in the third world.

“We’ve been waiting 25 years for a project like this,” says Baker, who roomed with tennis legend Arthur Ashe at UCLA.

When Baker joined the committee in 1986, its bank account contained a little less than 10 bucks, or 386 gourdes — the country’s currency — and was operated out of the president’s car trunk. Now, its budget, padded by IOC and UNICEF donations, is 80 million gourdes, or $2 million, and Haiti is entering a unique period of sports development.

A result of the earthquake devastation, 85% of the country’s athletic facilities crumbled, but the prime minister vowed to put a new field or park in each community to promote activity. A soccer venue, named Phoenix Stadium, is rising in Cité Soleil, Haiti’s worst slum.

“To compete in the Olympics is purely symbolic,” Baker says. “We need to start from scratch at the grassroots.”

Sympathy flowed in before the aftershocks settled. The Dominican Republic’s Olympic committee brought dry goods within 48 hours. Then the IOC offered to build a training facility — similar to one recently completed in Zambia — on land provided by the Haitian government. Mondo, the world’s leading builder in synthetic tracks, donated its services, and Baker now has the blueprints for the all-sports project on a desk in his office. There will be a synthetic track, a soccer field, a martial arts space and nine courts for basketball, volleyball and handball. Overall, 12 athletic disciplines will be served.

The infusion is unprecedented. Sports maintain a low profile in Haiti, which has not produced a homegrown Olympian in more than a decade. Soccer is the most popular sport, followed by basketball and volleyball, but there is no supervision of physical education in the schools.

In the streets, denizens don Vinny Testaverde Jets jerseys and Washington Nationals T-shirts, hand-me-downs from charity groups, but athletic monuments are limited to Cator, the lawyer who sold his car to compete in the 1928 Games. “I want to inspire,” says Laine, who has spoken with Pierre about taking on an official role with the committee. “Whether it is through development or learning what can be done on the ground, I want to help.”

Baker, meanwhile, insists that even as the National Palace rests in ruin and the National Cathedral resembles a hollowed-out Hollywood set, sports can help heal Haiti.

“This is for us a challenge,” Baker says. “We, the sports community, want to be the first. We want to say that we wanted to rebuild and we did.”

Caution prevails. Dorival remembers being shown blueprints of a similar facility in 2003, during the World Indoor Championships in Birmingham, England, but nothing came of them.

“This would be huge for the country,” he says.

The machines, meanwhile, move forward. Construction bids have been submitted. Work is scheduled to start in August. Baker believes a September 2003 unveiling is possible.

“Fingers crossed,” Pierre says.

* * *

There are 23 elementary school children — 12 girls, 11 boys — in Shalom Village, an orphanage on the outskirts of Cap Haïtien, a city by the northern coast. Several girls are addled by typhoid; most of their intestines were, at one time, infected with parasites.

On March 17, 2011, Laine, accompanied by Alexander and Moise Joseph, an 800-meter runner from Miami who trains with Laine and will represent Haiti in London, traveled to the house. It was Laine’s first trip to Haiti. His father, born in Pilate, returned only once, for five days, nine years ago. His mother, who arrived in America on Feb. 7, 1974, never returned. His paternal grandparents lost their house in the earthquake and moved to Montreal. Family members warned of the country’s violent past and present, a history marked by machetes on display in many homes and unmarked graves in fields.

“I was old enough to make my own decisions,” Laine says.

Laine and his friends ignored the U.S. State Department’s warning against non-essential travel to Haiti. In the months before and after the earthquake, the number of victims of violent crime, including murder and kidnapping, increased in Port-au-Prince. Kidnapping victims were physically abused, sexually assaulted, shot and killed.

“No one is safe,” the state department wrote in a notice.

The orphans disarmed the Americans with welcoming smiles. The group brought extra suitcases stuffed with toys, clothes and games. During instructional periods over the next three days, the children were divided into units — Team Samyr, Team Ayanna and Team Moise. They colored drawings of what home looks like, jumped rope, performed stretching exercises and hopped on one foot. They devoured Little Debbie snack cakes. “I never knew there were so many ways to eat a Little Debbie,” says Alexander, who will triple jump in London for Trinidad and Tobago, her home country.

Isolated beauty made the itinerary, too. After visiting the orphanage, the trio rode in the back of a pickup truck to a resort on Labadee Beach. The driver sped up a winding route overlooking a steep cliff, hugging tight turns on loose gravel, the tires dipping into bone-jarring potholes. “You felt it right in the spine,” Laine says. “I thought the muffler would fall off.”

Inviting vistas greeted them at the beach. They went off shore on a wooden boat emblazoned with a message: “I live in my own little world, but it’s okay, they know me here.”

When they returned to the resort, Laine and Joseph left footprints.

In a moist section of sand, they outlined the five Olympic rings over the country’s name in French, “Ayiti!”

“I hope the kids running past burning trash piles can see that, too,” Laine says.

* * *

Laine lives on the second floor of a three-story brick townhouse in Lorton, Va., a quiet suburb of Washington, D.C. Hard against the far corner of his bedroom stands a wooden desk crowded by Smoothie King coupons, a wedding invitation wrapped in silver ribbon and an empty bottle of Monster Milk. Folded in half under the window is a red and blue Haitian flag. Laine ordered it handmade from a local store. He paid $40.

“I’m bringing it with me to London,” he says. “My mother or father will hold it in the stands, and they’ll hand it to me for my lap after victory. I’ll take my spikes off, hug my mom, my girlfriend and be all set.”

In Laine’s training log, a spiral notebook he designates as “My Mind Gym,” Laine outlines what the perfect jump looks like. He measures his approach by walking off steps — between 115-118, depending on the wind and surface — and notes the need to fly through the board with no decrease in speed while syncing his arms. He should feel a slight wind on his shoulder in the hop phase off the right leg, come down briefly, set his feet under his hips, cock the arms back and fly out.

“I’ve never worked with someone so detailed,” Jackson says.

Laine surrounds himself with signs of hope and looks past London.

Scrawled in black marker on his dry-erase board is the Japanese word “Kaizen,” which translates to “change for the better.” On his laptop computer, he uses Photoshop to crop images that he can use for the foundation he plans to implement in Haiti. His working title is “A Foot In Two Worlds.”


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