FELIX SANCHEZ

 

 
 

 

Born To Run
There's a good reason Felix Sanchez is a two-time World Champion in the 400M hurdles. And a better reason why he's one of the most beloved athletes of the Dominican Republic.             

PHOTOGRAPHY Dimitry Loiseau

When we hear about the Dominican Republic, we think mostly of baseball players like Sammy Sosa. That may all change this summer when World Champion hurdler Felix Sanchez hits the 2004 Olympic Games. In fact, Felix may become the biggest Dominican sports figure the world has ever seen.

To the average American, who only pays attention to track and field during Olympic years, Felix Sanchez is a relative unknown. To Europe, Sanchez is already a track mega-star. To the Dominican Republic, he is almost a god. He is their “Super Felix.” It’s true that he is one of very few world-class Dominican athletes, but that’s not the only reason the Dominican Republic loves him so much. It has as much to do with the fact that Felix chose to represent the Dominican Republic. That’s because, although he’s of 100% Dominican descent, he was actually born and raised in the U.S. He could have chosen to represent the U.S., thereby assuring himself of bigger endorsements, earning power, and name recognition. Yet he chose to represent the tiny little Latin American country where his parents were born.

 

 

           

 

 
   

Sanchez is the reigning 400 meter World Champion and has already matched the feat of the legendary Edwin Moses by becoming only the second hurdler in history to repeat as World Champion. With the 2004 Olympics right around the corner, get ready to hear a lot more about Sanchez. He may be favored going into his Olympic races, but in Felix Sanchez we will witness a man who represents the underdog. He shows us that as Latinos we should never forget where we come from.


Congratulations on your victory at the World Championships in Paris. How do you feel about being the only hurdler since the legendary Edwin Moses to retain the World Title?
Well last year [repeating] was kind of my sole motivation. The previous two years I was number one and undefeated, but you never know in a championship situation. You can hit a hurdle. You can have a bad day, have an injury. Anything can happen. So my biggest goal last year, apart from the Pan Am Games, was to retain my title and earn my “stamp of approval” as a great hurdler by becoming the only one besides Edwin Moses to do that. There have been a lot of good hurdlers, but that’s it; they’re just good hurdlers. I want to be one of the great ones.

Why has it been so hard for hurdlers to repeat as world champs?
The event is just…I mean no disrespect to Edwin Moses, but he was a man amongst boys in his time. He was way ahead of his time. There was really no competition until the latter years of his career. Ever since him there has been an emergence of great hurdlers, especially in the States…The event right now is just so hot and so competitive. A lot of great athletes are [competing at] the same time. So you’ve got to stay healthy in the hurdle event. You have to really concentrate on your technique. Take 2001 Championships for instance, the reigning 2000 Olympic champion hit the last hurdle in the semifinals and doesn’t qualify for the finals. (He and I had the fastest time coming into the World Championships.) He doesn’t make the finals. I do, and I end up winning. I mean it’s just a really competitive event. It’s really tough.

Some athletes say that winning a gold medal is the ultimate athletic achievement. Others, like Lance Armstrong or Michelle Kwan, have proven that you don’t need a gold medal to prove that you’re the best. How do you feel about this?
It really depends on your sport. For Lance Armstrong the Tour de France is like an Olympics in itself. Winning the Tour de France is the biggest accomplishment in cycling…As far as I’m concerned, to be great in track and field…it’s sad, but the reality is that when most people hear “track and field” they think of the Olympics. No one in the U.S. really knows that there’s the World Championships every two years—a relatively huge event in Europe and around the world.

In track and field, to be in the biggest event—at the biggest sporting stage, where the whole world is watching—to win at that level means winning a gold medal at the Olympics. It makes a statement. It goes beyond saying that you are the greatest. No one can take it away from you. The Olympics also happen only every four years. Considering the average athlete’s career lasts maybe 10 years, you figure there’s only a couple of Olympics in there. You are only given so many shots at it, so if you can seal the deal, it’s going to go down in the history books. Everyone’s going to remember. You’ll remember it.


I read that when you first went out for track, things didn’t start out so promising?
Yeah, that was an experience. I was really terrible. I came from a baseball background. We moved a lot when I was younger and I pretty much only played baseball and football. Football was already in mid-season when I got to my new high school, so I decided to go out for the wrestling team. One of my best friends was a wrestler so I tried it. I was wrestling with the coach ‘cause he was trying to show me a couple of new moves, and I broke my wrist. So obviously I couldn’t try out for the baseball team. My arm didn’t affect my running, so the track coach convinced me to go out for track. In baseball I was always the fastest person on the team, so I was like, “Why not?”

In my first race we were trying out for the relay team. I had spikes on and everybody else had tennis shoes on, so I clearly had the advantage. But I still ended up getting last! I ran 13:01 in the 100 meters, and we had this all star girl who ended up running a 13:00 flat. Everybody was just laughing at me. I was the laughing stock. “Oh, he got beat by a girl.” It was just terrible.

A lot of people may have quit on the spot after that type of humiliation, yet you obviously stuck it out.
I think it was the mere fact that I’m really competitive and have always been that way. Most of my life if someone said I couldn’t do something, I would love it. I drive off of it. That drove me to really want to train hard and do even better, instead of just copping out and playing baseball next year. My doing so bad at first is kind of the reason I am who I am today in track and field. If I hadn’t done so bad…if I had done okay, I probably would have just gone back to baseball. So I guess everything happens for a reason.

What’s the difference between a good sprinter and a good hurdler?
Well, it depends on the event, but as far as the 100 meter goes, that is pretty much raw speed, really explosive power. There is a certain amount of mechanics involved, but for the most part you give it 100% to the finish line. Then there’s the short hurdle race and the long hurdle race. The short hurdle race is really rhythmic. It’s just as long as the 100 meters—actually 110 meters—and the hurdles are 42 inches high. It’s not raw speed; you don’t just go out there and blast it. There’s a certain rhythm, a certain pattern you’ve got to follow. You don’t really accelerate much. The 400—which is my event—is more like a building process. You don’t go all out, because you won’t finish. It’s a whole lap of the track with 10 hurdles that are 36 inches high. The hurdles come about every 35 meters, so there’s about 13 or 14 strides in between each hurdle. You really have to open your stride, relax. It’s more of an endurance type event, rather than a pure speed deal. Each event has its skill to it. It totally has to do with how you’re built and what your tolerance is—what your strengths are and what you have the desire to train for. There’s something for everyone out there. I may have a certain amount of speed, but I don’t have enough speed to try the 100, so I tried the 400…You just have to gauge what your abilities are. Most hurdlers, 400 meters or 110, are people who are somewhat agile, that can take the technical aspect of it.

It seems to me that hurdling requires more concentration.
Oh yeah. Because you’ve got hurdles in front of you, you’ve got to think about your stride pattern. And you’ve got to think about the athletes around you. Then there’s the crowd…it’s a lot to think about, so you have to really focus. Once fatigue sets in, your body starts doing things you really don’t want it to. Your legs start getting heavy, but you still have to maintain your form and your focus.

Right now you are clearly at the top of your game. Do you think it’s harder to get to the top or stay there?
I would say that it’s harder to stay here. I got here relatively fast. I’m used to being at this level. I’ve been at three or four different levels, and I’ve been the best at each level. But the thing about being at the top is that everyone in the world—I mean people in Poland, South Africa, all over the world—they want to beat Felix Sanchez. There’s a fine line between wanting to become the best and wanting to stay the best. When you want to be the best you look at who the best is and you strive for that. That is your motivation. But for me, I’m at the top, so in order to stay at the top I have to switch my mentality. This is kind of where my psychology degree comes into play. Instead of saying, “Okay, I have to do better than these guys…I’m training to go beyond what I’ve done. They’re training to beat me at my old times—my 47:02 for example—but they can’t see that I’m training to go 47:01.

Besides that, the feeling of crossing the line first and standing at the top, the feeling of people trying to beat you, being mad at you that you won, that in itself drives me to train harder. It’s a good feeling up here, and I’m no fool. I know that I’m not going to be here forever. I know that someone is going to come around and there’s nothing I’ll be able to do, they’ll just be faster. When that time comes, I’ll bow out gracefully. But until then I’m going to enjoy the ride, and I’m going to give it my all and try my darndest to stay up here.

How much connection did you have to your Dominican roots when you were growing up?
I grew up mostly with my mother and we kept the Dominican culture pretty much intact. My grandmother, who’s Dominican, was always around, my aunt…so I always had that constant influence. But as far as being in a community of Dominicans, that is probably what I lacked the most. There is not a great Dominican community on the West Coast, and I didn’t travel much back to the East Coast. When I went to the Dominican Republic it was for a summer trip or something, it was never for an extended time period. But at home, I always had the culture enforced in the food, the heritage, things we did…my mom didn’t Americanize me. She kept it Dominican and I think that had a lot to do with my grandmother being around.

Dominicans in the U.S., most of whom have African blood, are often perceived as just being black. People can’t seem to understand that they’re Latinos.
Yeah, in that sense it was bad growing up on the West Coast because no one really knew what Dominican was. When you say to people, “I’m Dominican,” they’re like, “Where is that?” When I was younger people would ask me, “What are your parents?” I would say Dominican and they would say, “Well what is that? Is that like Mexican or Puerto Rican?”

I was young and I didn’t know any better, so it kind of made me feel like an outcast. No one knew what I was, so I kind of shied away from speaking Spanish. I wouldn’t want to speak it because people would be like, “Why are you speaking Spanish?” So when Spanish was spoken in the house, I would respond in English. I would hear and understand it, but I would respond in English. That kind of transformed into a barrier, and I almost forgot my Spanish. I would understand it, but I forgot how to pronounce it and the annunciation. When I got into high school I had to pick up a foreign language, so I studied Spanish and studied it again in college. I picked it up again, but as far as the pronunciation I tend to have problems with that still.

Growing up most of my friends where African-Americans. I kind of fit in better with them, again because I grew up in neighborhoods where there were no Dominicans or Puerto Rican cliques. But whenever anyone asked me, “What ethnicity are you?” I always said, “Latino.” And people were like, “Why do you always put Latino?” Because they saw me as African-American. Every once in a while they would say, “You’re Dominican. How do you feel about that?” I would always say, “I feel Dominican. I’m full-blooded Dominican. I’m not ashamed of that.”

Were you very athletic even as a kid?
Yeah, I always played sports. I played Pop Warner football, Little League baseball. My first sport was baseball. That was something I gravitated towards because I thought, that’s what Dominicans do, we play baseball. So I figured, if I’m going to be good at a sport, it must be baseball.

Do track and field stars pick up on as many women as NBA stars?
It’s a little different. There are a lot of women overseas because track and field is so much bigger in other countries. There’s a big Dominican community in Europe, in Switzerland, France, Finland, Norway, Brussels…they gravitate towards their people. They are really proud of me and you can kind of see it when you meet them. They say, “Oh I have a friend,” or, “I want you to meet my daughter.” It’s not the same level [as the NBA], but it’s close.

In this issue we name the 10 hottest Latinas in the world as chosen by Latino men throughout the U.S.? Who would be your top three?
Well...your last cover girl, Christina Santiago...then Jennifer Lopez, then Roselyn Sanchez.

You’re a national hero in the Dominican Republic, where you caused quite a commotion at the last Pan Am Games. Does the Dominican Republic feel like home to you even though you were born and raised in the U.S.?
It makes me proud of my decision. Granted there are some people that say, “Oh, he’s American. He’s not really Dominican.” But 90% of the people are proud of me, and even more so because I was raised in the United States and I chose to come back to my roots, to compete and represent the country of my blood and my parents. They really respect that, because there are Dominicans that were born in the Dominican Republic that would do anything to compete for the United States. It just feels good when you are appreciated. Especially when you come to a fork in the road where you have to make a decision and you make the decision you feel is right, and the people that support you really agree with it and confirm that, “Yeah, that was a great decision. We’re proud of you. You’re making a difference, and we appreciate it.” I feel that when I go down there. It’s just a Latin thing, the level of love and admiration that Latinos have. It just comes out and you feel it.

Some people have attacked you by saying that the only reason you run for the Dominican Republic is because you didn’t make the U.S. team. How would you respond to that?
First of all, these people don’t understand anything about where I’ve been and where I come from. The whole story is, since ’96—mind you I started running in ‘95—I was trying to compete for the Dominican Republic. I always wanted to compete for the Dominican Republic. But the Dominican Republic before me was not even on the map as far as track and field. It was almost non-existent. There were no contact numbers, no one to call, no federation. There was no means to get into contact with them. So I continued to run track and still continued my desire and my drive to try to compete for the Dominican Republic someway, somehow.

In 1999 the opportunity presented itself when a reporter from La Opinion did a story on a USC-UCLA track meet and did a story on me because I had broken a record that was there for about 23 years. The reporter asked me if I was going to compete in the 2000 Olympics and I said, “Of course.” I told him I’d been trying to compete for the Dominican Republic. He said, “Oh, you want to compete for the Dominican Republic? Let me see what I can do.” So he contacted Manny Mota, who recruits Dominican baseball players for the Dodgers. While this whole process is going on I had the chance to go compete at the U.S. Nationals in ’99. I still hadn’t heard back from [Mota] and when I had gotten back from the U.S. Nationals I had gotten sixth place, and I didn’t make the team, obviously. About a week later my coach called me and said that someone from the Dominican Republic had called and they were interested, that they wanted to meet me and were glad I wanted to compete for them. So I was ecstatic. They asked me if I wanted to go to the Pan Am Games and I said, “Sure, I would love to. I go to the Pan Am games and I got [personal records] of 48.8 and 48.6. If I would have run those times two weeks earlier I would have made the American team. So it wasn’t like I couldn’t run that fast, I just didn’t at the time. Everything happens for a reason. I wasn’t supposed to run those times yet, because I was meant for to run for the Dominican Republic. I always wanted to run for the Dominican Republic. I sought them out. They didn’t come to me and ask me, I sought them out. It was never an issue of whether I could compete at this level for the United States, because I am number one in the world. I can compete for any country.

Maybe it’s a sense of bitterness that some people had towards you for doing so well and not representing the U.S.
Before they would say, “Oh that’s Felix Sanchez. He’s Dominican.” But later…the minute I win the World Championship, I would hear, “Oh that’s the American-raised Dominican Felix Sanchez running for the Dominican Republican. He’s really an American.” It just changed. No one really complained until I made it to a certain level. And then they were like, “He’s only there because of this and that.”

In all honesty I’m actually taking a hit. I’m actually making less money because I compete for the Dominican Republic. As far as my sponsorships, I am losing out competing for a Third World country. [The Dominican Republic] hasn’t given me a dime, yet some people say I’m doing it for the money…I’m losing because the sponsors can’t market me the same in the Dominican Republic as they could in the States. There is no real [financial gain] for me to run for the Dominican Republic…It was just a desire that was instilled in me, something that I had way before. Something that was totally my choice.

As a successful Latino man, what words of advice do you have for other Latinos?
The main thing is that we have to represent as a people. We can’t separate ourselves as Mexicans, Dominicans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans. We’re a Latin people…We’ve conquered, we’ve done it all. We could do anything in sports, writing, acting, singing, arts, entertainment. We can do anything just as well as anyone else in the world, and I’ve seen it because I’ve been all around the world. There are Latinos everywhere. There are Latinos in Italy, in Switzerland. We just have to stick together as a people. It is key to support each other, to push each other, push the envelope to try to make a name for ourselves. We can’t let people think that we’re less than anyone. We can do anything, if not the same, then better than any other people in this world.

 


 

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