Felix Sanchez: The boy who started late, but bloomed into an Olympic great
There’s hope for all of us. In most sports in most countries around the world, excellence is spotted at a young age, nurtured and developed by professionals before the athlete flies the nest. There are few secret talents and late bloomers that slip through the net.
But any teenager worried their chance has gone or that they’re not good enough, can take inspiration from Felix Sanchez. At the London Games, the Dominican Republic star captured his second Olympic gold medal in the 400m hurdles at 35 to round off a success-laden career.
But it all started so badly. Sanchez suffered what is probably – rightly or wrongly – the most embarrassing thing a teenage boy can suffer in competition – losing to a girl.
“Most Dominican boys dream of being a baseball player and I was no different,” Sanchez told Sport360°. “I played baseball from six years old until 15.
“In my first year at high school, my friends and I chose to do some wrestling, just so we had a sport in the fall while we waited for the baseball season to come around. At the end of December I broke my wrist and wasn’t able to try out for the team. As a joke the athletics coach said, ‘you can run with a broken wrist’. I was always the fastest on the baseball team, but ironically I wasn’t the fastest when I ran my first race, I got beat by a few people including a girl sprinter who was faster than me.”
While some might have skulked away from the track in shame, Sanchez dedicated himself to the 400m hurdles, a sport he would dominate as an adult. Between 2001 and 2004, Sanchez won 43 races in a row before securing gold at the Athens Olympics.
While Sanchez is one of sport’s good guys with a disarmingly soft voice, he is ferociously determined too. “I’m just so competitive that I had to improve,” he added, “The next year instead of going back to baseball, I wanted to prove I could do it in track and field.
“I trained harder, studied the sport, started hurdling and all the bits and pieces came together, getting me more interested in it. I fell in love with it and never went back. It’s definitely a good thing I broke my wrist otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting here.”
With Sanchez at the top of his profession, injuries soon struck and his form took a nosedive, culminating in a traumatic experience at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Sanchez failed to make the final after hearing about the death of his grandmother, an event that left him in tears for a day.
At the “ancient” age of 34, there was redemption in London, spurred on by a promise to his grandmother, winning gold. It provided one of the most endearing images of the 2012 event when Sanchez, wearing a picture of his grandmother under his bib as well as writing her name on his spikes, was overcome by emotion on the podium.
While his achievement was lauded – he is the oldest 400m hurdler to win gold – Sanchez saw a lot of luck in the way things panned out. “It helped that no one came into the field, in the way that someone like Usain Bolt did, coming in and demolishing everyone,” he added.
“Champions were changing every year and no one was running particularly fast so I figured I can still compete with these guys. Every year that went badly there was always a reason, an injury, being out of shape, there was always an excuse to keep me thinking, ‘well next year, if this and that don’t happen then I’ll be back to where I was’.
“Track and field is all about confidence, it has to do with talent too, but so much relies on confidence. You have to go into a race knowing you can execute and that you’re not second guessing yourself.
"Finally, coming into 2012 I had a good 2011 and I thought this is the year to find out if I’ve been fooling myself or whether age and injury have got the better of me. That’s always in the back of your mind, especially in my event when the previous oldest gold medalist was 29.
“You think is this the year I start declining, losing a stop, should I just retire? All those little things in your mind you have to forget, keep looking forward and aim to be the best. Fortunately, it panned out.”.
And his focus was clear in London as he revealed: “Very similar to Athens, almost to the letter. I showed up late, I didn’t go the opening ceremony and I turned up three days before the opening round. It was just a kind of go to work and be done with it mentality. Because athletics comes right at the end of the Games, there wasn’t much to do after I ran.
“I went there for one purpose, trained once, maybe twice on the warm-up track, just rested and waited for the first round. I think one of the reasons I have made so many finals is because I don’t see it as a three-day competition, I take it one day at a time. I just look at who I’m competing against on that day, try to take them out, then move on to the next day and see who you’re competing against there.”
Jealously guarded, the Olympic Village is always at the centre of intrigue and gossip every four years. With fast food joints and all-night parties, the Village hardly seems conducive to performing at ones best. Avoiding such distractions was just one of the ways Sanchez was able to fulfil his ambition. “Absolutely people let themselves down by hanging round the Olympic village," he said. "You go round there two weeks before, I don’t see the purpose. If you need to go there and focus, you’re in the wrong business."
After such an inauspicious start to his career, it’s easy to see why Sanchez would be driven to succeed more than most.
1977: August 30: Born in New York City to Dominican parents.
2000: Fails to make the finals at the Sydney Olympics, keeping a red wristband as a souvenir to remind himself of the failure.
2001: Wins first World Championships gold in Edmonton
2001-2004: Embarks on a run of 43 straight wins including the 2003 World Championships in Paris as well as his only Pan American gold medal.
2004: Becomes his country’s first Olympic gold medallist in Athens Games and auctions off the red wristband for charity. But he injured himself in the very next race.
2008: Fails to make finals of the 400m hurdles in Beijing after death of his grandmother, but vows to win gold in London.
2012: Breaks down in tears as he keeps his word and clinches his second gold medal in the Games.