Born To Run
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.
Why has it been
so hard for hurdlers to repeat as world champs?
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
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.
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.
difference between a good sprinter and a good hurdler?
It seems to me
that hurdling requires more concentration.
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?
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?
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.
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?
Do track and field
stars pick up on as many women as NBA stars?
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?
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.?
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?
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.
a sense of bitterness that some people had towards you for doing so well
and not representing the U.S.
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?
OPEN YOUR EYES
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