[INTERVIEW] Alberto Campbell-Staines, 'Running for more than gold'

Meet Alberto Campbell-Staines. He has been called the ‘Australian Usain Bolt’, is as hardworking as he is witty and will be living out his dream when he competes in the men’s 400m T20 for Australia at the Rio Paralympics this September.

‘It’s a huge honour representing my country at a higher level. I’m just honoured to run again with the world’s fastest runners for my category,’ he shares with Warcry, obviously humbled by the experience.

When you see vision of Alberto (or Bertie, as he is introduced to me) running, there’s no doubt he was made for this moment. Poised, sleek and fast, he looks at home on the race track. This was not the case though, when Australian parents, Salvo missionaries Paul and Julie-Anne Staines, first met him as a child in Jamaica. 

If there was any hint that Bertie was born for great things, it shows in photographs of him growing up in The Salvation Army- run orphanage, The Nest, in Jamaica. With wide eyes and a playful grin, it was at the adjoining Salvation Army School for the Blind and Visually Impaired (Bertie is neither), that he met teachers Paul and Julie-Anne and was evidently one of the troublemakers in class. 

‘I was one of Julie-Anne’s good children,’ he says with a mischievous smile. 

Born three weeks premature in Kingston, Jamaica, Bertie was moved to a government-run orphanage soon after his birth. His mother was an orphan living on the streets and, after ensuring Bertie was safe, she disappeared. He was then transferred to The Nest at the age of five and found it difficult to learn at school due to an intellectual impairment. This is where he began running. 

He says of his childhood friends, ‘Some of them were faster than me, and they were blind!’ Calling them his ‘brothers and sisters’, he continues, ‘I had fun playing with the kids and going to school with them. At night-time it gets pretty scary because there was crime and violence outside the orphanage. We were there to protect and comfort each other.’

The path to success is long and hard for every athlete, but for Bertie it would not have begun if Paul and Julie-Anne hadn’t packed up their lives in Brisbane to teach in Jamaica. It was here that God audibly singled him out to the couple, and proceeded to fill Bertie in on the plan. 

‘It was towards the end of the three years that that God spoke to each and every one of us about Mum and Dad adopting me,’ he shares. ‘God said to me, “These two people are going to ask you a question, and your answer should be ‘Yes’”.’

While this experience was overwhelming for Bertie, even at a young age he sensed he was a part of a bigger plan. 

‘I felt a bit scared because I just heard this voice out of nowhere, you know? But at the same time, I was a bit excited, to be honest. I thought “God, why me?” But I’m pretty sure one day I will find out why I was the only child Mum and Dad adopted.’ 

Paul and Julie-Anne eventually succeeded in adopting Bertie when he was nine (a tough process due to Jamaican legalities) and it took another five years for him to become an Australian citizen. Once he began school, Bertie soon found he had a flair for running–-and he was fast.

At his first school athletics carnival in 2003, a pre-teen Bertie outran every other student in his races. Not only did he bring home his first blue ribbons that day, but he also brought home a new dream. 

‘I think it was at that school carnival I fell in love with the idea of running. I remember thinking, “I want to keep on doing this, see where this will take me”.’

It’s fair to say that the now 22-year-old has been running ever since. Bertie has a scholarship from the Queensland Academy of Sport and holds a large handful of impressive placings and accomplishments to his name, competing on a national and international level.

Most notably, in 2013 he competed in the 9th INAS World Athletics Championships in Prague, winning a bronze in the men’s 400m and men’s 4 x 400m relay. 

He also placed first in the men’s ambulant 200m at the 2015 Australian Championships, proving he is one of the fastest runners in the country. Bertie later represented Australia at the IPC Athletics Grand Prix as part of the Italian Champion­ships and placed second in the men’s 400m T20, the same event he will be running in Rio. According to IPC Athletics, he now ranks third in the world for the event.

Bertie has the famous quote by Olympian Eric Liddell (who was, coincidentally, also a 400m sprinter) on his bedroom wall that says, ‘God made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure,’ and it is clear this same passion is mirrored in his own career. 

Training six days a week under athletics coach Annette Rice (‘[she] treats me the same as all the other athletes in the sport’) and crediting his family and friends as the motivation behind his hard work, ultimately this young man just loves to run for God.

‘I feel God when I run, I don’t feel myself... I look brighter when I run. And I’m pretty sure most people can see that,’ says Bertie.  ‘I mean, no matter where I come in the race, I feel God’s presence. I give him the glory after every race no matter where I come.’

While the story of Bertie’s journey to the Rio Olympics is nothing short of incredible, the true miracle is the genuine love he has for his parents and the life they have given him. Once he had the odds stacked against him, yet today he is your (somewhat) average 22-year-old. He loves video games, catching up with friends and playing the drums. And when he’s not training, he works part-time as a teacher’s aide at Citipointe Christian College in Brisbane. 

I ask him how we can support him on his journey to Rio and the answer is pretty simple—he would like prayer, for himself and for children living in the poverty where he grew up.

‘My biggest dream in life is to see younger Paralympic runners getting involved and I’d like to see more people being more interested in us Paralympic runners, because it’s pretty hard to get support here.’

This year when you tune into the 2016 Rio Paralympics, you will see a green and gold clad athlete readying himself at the start line of the Men’s 400m T20 wearing the label ‘Campbell’. The world will watch as he takes in the roar of the crowd and when the starting pistol goes off, you can be assured he is running for more than gold.