Cleopatra Borel had no athletic aspirations when she arrived in Baltimore from Trinidad and Tobago in 1997. She enrolled at what was then Coppin State College on the advice of her high school math teacher, a Coppin alum. Powerfully built and an eager learner, Borel quickly developed in the throwing events and broke Coppin’s shot put record early in her tenure there.
After the Eagles’ coach left the program, UMBC offered Borel an athletic scholarship and she made the move to Hilltop Circle.
Borel ’02, interdisciplinary studies, flourished both academically and athletically at UMBC. She earned All-America honors (top eight) in the shot put both indoors and outdoors in the 2000 – 01 season. However, she would have only one more crack at the NCAAs, with one year of indoor track and field eligibility remaining.
On March 9, 2002, Cleo, as she was known at UMBC, took to the shot put circle at the University of Arkansas. On her next-to-last throw, she uncorked a personal best of 17.50 meters (57’5”), putting her in first place. When the last shot had landed, the black-and-gold clad Retriever had outdistanced the field and captured UMBC’s first Division I national title.
In her first year of eligibility (2006 – 07), the UMBC Athletic Hall of Fame Committee tabbed Borel for induction. However, some events on her calendar kept getting in the way of her returning to campus—namely the 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016 Olympics. At 37 years old, she produced her best finish, placing seventh at the 2016 Rio Games. Her final Olympic moment occurred as she served as Trinidad and Tobago’s flag bearer at the closing ceremonies.
Borel returned to the United States in January 2022 to coach the throwers at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. And, in October 2023, she finally made the journey back to Hilltop Circle to be inducted into the UMBC Athletics Hall of Fame.
We asked Borel to reflect on her incredible journey.
Q: You arrived at UMBC under unusual circumstances and remain the only Retriever to win an individual NCAA Championship. Reflecting on your time here, what did it mean for you to be a Retriever and how did your UMBC experience assist you in all of your endeavors?
Borel: I walked away from a very good situation at Coppin State College, not knowing how things would evolve at UMBC. However, I have to say, taking a chance on UMBC is still among the top three best decisions I have made thus far. My UMBC student-athlete experience prepared me for life as an Olympic athlete, essentially taking on the world.
I believe I was prepared to navigate life on the professional track and field circuit because of [UMBC Athletics Director] Dr. Charles Brown’s sports management class and because my event Coach Brian King and track and field Head Coach David Bobb ’97 taught me to work hard, be confident, and play to my strengths.
UMBC’s academic accomplishments, artistic expressions, community outreach initiatives, and of course athletic triumphs reflect the unwavering commitment we all share in making our school a truly exceptional place—a special place where a young person can take a chance and, through hard work and dedication, rise to the top of their field.
Q: What did it mean for you to represent Trinidad and Tobago in international competitions, including four Olympic Games?
Borel: Trinidad and Tobago is a small, developing nation in the Caribbean with a population of less than 1.4 million individuals on two islands. As a result, I felt like one of a few sporting ambassadors representing my country. I am proud to have been responsible for the playing of my national anthem at stadiums across the globe.
UMBC’s academic accomplishments, artistic expressions, community outreach initiatives, and of course athletic triumphs reflect the unwavering commitment we all share in making our school a truly exceptional place.
Q: What prompted you to develop the Cleopatra Borel Foundation and what is its mission?
Borel: The mission of the Cleopatra Borel Foundation is to facilitate the development of youth through sport and education. We believe this can be accomplished at the grassroots level in Trinidad and Tobago by assisting with coaches’ education, gear, and equipment distribution.
Q: Anything else you would like to share with the UMBC community?
Borel: It was indeed an honor to represent you at the NCAAs and on a global level. I am a proud Retriever, excited to see how UMBC will continue to positively influence Maryland and the world.
By Steve Levy ’85