Published April 10. 2014 4:00AM
New London - A daughter was separated from her mother.
Francine Jacqué, then a 13-year-old New London High School sophomore, was sent along with her sister Carine to live with their father in the United States following a life-altering earthquake in 2010 that destroyed the family home in a section of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Mosta Nelson, meanwhile, Jacqué's beloved mother, in whose room Francine slept as a child and who would wake her daughter each morning to get her ready for school, remained behind in Haiti. Living at first in a tent, later in temporary housing, Nelson spent more than a year fulfilling the necessary paperwork and wading through the required interviews to receive the visa allowing her entry into the country where she might rejoin her family.
There were times during the more than two years they were apart, mainly when she was alone, where all Francine could do was sit and weep.
Now, this is how joy manifests itself at Jacqué's New London home, a family reunited.
"We put music on and dance," Jacqué said, a wide smile enveloping her face. "We just fool around and dance."
Jacqué, 16, is a senior at New London and an All-New England sprinter for the indoor and outdoor track teams, having won Class M state championships in the 100, 200 and 400 meters last May at Willowbrook Park in New Britain.
She will graduate two years sooner than students her own age, having skipped two grades previously in Haiti, and has given a verbal commitment to attend Quinnipiac University in Hamden, where she was offered a full Division I track scholarship.
But it was her mom's arrival on Oct. 9, 2013, at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, that completed the picture for Jacqué.
"It was just, like, hugs, kisses, jumping around. She looked different," said Jacqué, who mainly kept in touch with her mother via text message during the separation. "She was extremely happy. It (gave) her a lot of stress (to be away). I was raised by my mom. We were close. When someone did something to me, I used to call my mom to fix it. I didn't see her for almost three years ... It was really strange. I kept crying, 'I want my mom.'"
Then there was the day Nelson saw her daughter compete as an athlete for the first time, running with what New London coach Bob Castronova calls a joyful abandon.
Jacqué won three events at the Eastern Connecticut Conference Small Division indoor track championship Jan. 25 at the Coast Guard Academy, setting a meet record in the 300 (41.40 seconds), breaking a mark that stood since 2001. Nelson was among the fans shoehorned into Roland Fieldhouse, watching a sport she never saw before.
"Everyone thought she was crazy," Jacqué said with a laugh. "She said, 'I didn't even know it was a sport.' (After the meet), she called all her friends, I think."
Jacqué was joined by her mom, who speaks French Creole, and her brother Francky, a medical school student at the National University of Rosario in Santa Fe, Argentina, for a recent interview at New London High. Jacqué gladly served as translator for her mother, who is attending adult education classes to learn to speak English.
Jean Jacqué, Francine's father, is employed by Foxwoods Resort Casino, having previously lived in the U.S. to help provide for his family. Carine, Francine's older sister, is a student at Western Connecticut State University.
"It's a pleasure to see her run," Mosta Nelson said of her daughter. "I was proud. ... I like it (living in the United States). You can be successful. You have the opportunity to be successful."
Nelson was asked again if she was proud of everything Jacqué has accomplished, arriving in the U.S. unable to speak the language and achieving what she has scholastically and athletically.
"Oui," said the 51-year-old Nelson in her native language, smiling.
Jacqué is still a kid, late for practice occasionally because she's freshening up her makeup. One of her favorite parts of her official visit to Quinnipiac? Her future teammates painted her fingernails. But it's hard to beat Jacqué's uncanny perspective on what's important in life.
Following the earthquake, which struck on Jan. 12, 2010, when Francine was just 12, she and her immediate family went to live with relatives about five hours away. It took them days to get there, sometimes walking, part of the time spent on overcrowded buses.
Their own house collapsed in the earthquake, which registered a 7.0 on the Richter scale and killed nearly a quarter of a million people. In the aftermath, Jacqué and her family had little by which to remember their former lives.
"My college essay was based on that," she said. "You know how one thing happens to a person and it makes them who they are? That was it. It definitely makes me stronger. I had to be something in life. Me not dying, that meant God had a purpose for me."
The thing Jacqué misses most about her native country is her family there, including 26 cousins.
"You just feel the love when you're around them," she said. "We all go to one house for a month in the summer and stay with each other and bond."
They are some of the people for whom Jacqué is determined to succeed. She won't return to Haiti, she said, until she has something to give back to them.
There are also her parents, her brother and sister, Castronova - who cajoled her, somewhat unwillingly, into a track career - and her teammates.
In addition, there are her mentors at the Science and Technology Magnet High School of Southeastern Connecticut, including college planning advisor Meg Mahon, who has consistently provided assistance, and director Lou Allen, who has been amazed by Jacqué's transformation.
From the time she arrived in New London, where she takes classes at the magnet school - adjacent to New London High - until now, Jacqué said she couldn't ask for more.
"There are times it gets really hard. I get tired," Jacqué said. "But I'm not just doing it for myself. I want to make everybody proud. I have a lot to make proud. ... It's like a survival skill. You had to be strong. It's not like I want to. I have to.
"I have people helping me with everything. People believe in me."
Castronova was an assistant girls' soccer coach when he first saw Jacqué as a sophomore. At the time, Castronova was New London's boys' and girls' indoor and outdoor track coach.
"Fortunately for me, she had no soccer skills," said Castronova, who still coaches both teams indoors and the boys' team outdoors. "I think she holds the ECC record for most fouls in a game. But she was blazing fast. I said, 'We have to get this girl on the track.'
"When she started (track), she just wanted to run fast. There was no finesse. There was speed. She runs the way she plays soccer, she just attacks the track."
At 16, Jacqué, who is 5-foot-11, hasn't scratched the surface of her potential, the coach said.
Most recently, Jacqué was the Class M indoor champion in the 300 (41.38) and went on to better her time at the State Open (fifth, 41.33) and at the New England meet (fifth, 41.20).
"She's always had one foot in that adult world because she's been thrust there and one foot in the adolescent world," Castronova said. "But she's a pretty gregarious kid. She's an upbeat kid. When she gets on the track, you can see ... it reminds me of the scene in 'Chariots of Fire' where the Scottish guy is running.
"She knows she has a God-given talent and she embraces it. She knows it's a way for her to get to places she would not have been able to."