By Pablo J. Sáinz
Growing up in San Diego, most of the time Felix Sanchez was the only person of Dominican origin in the room. Even more, people would assume he wasn’t even Latino, because of his black skin.
“I would speak Spanish, and people would be like, ‘You speak Spanish? You don’t look Latino, you’re Black,’” said Sanchez, from his home in Los Angeles. “I’ll be like, ‘Of course I speak Spanish, I’m Dominican!’ ‘You’re what? Is that like Puerto Rican or something.’”
The only place where he could truly appreciate his Dominican roots was at home.
That is why, when he was ready to compete in track and field, he decided to represent his parents’ country of origin, Dominican Republic, even though he was born in New York and raised in San Diego.
“It was my way of filling that longing for all things Dominican,” Sanchez said.
Through that decision he not only found his way back to his roots, but in 2004 Sanchez gave the Caribbean nation its first Olympic medal, after he won the 400 meters hurdles gold medal in Athens.
He instantly became a national hero in the Dominican Republic, and an inspiration for a new generation of youth, whose only option before in sports was either baseball or basketball.
“I would’ve made more money competing for the United States, but the feeling of making a difference, of being a role model for so many kids, can’t even compared, it is something money can’t buy,” said Sanchez, who lived in Chula Vista, and attended University City High School, and San Diego Mesa College, before moving to the University of Southern California.
Sanchez said that he often visits San Diego. One of his best friends is former Charger and fellow Dominican Luis Castillo, with whom he’s spending Easter in San Diego.
Two weeks before his 35th birthday, Sanchez amazingly won the 400 metres hurdles gold medal in London, repeating his achievement in Athens in 2004. Because of this great achievement, he won the Laureus Comeback Athlete of the year award this month in Brazil.
“For one of the most exhausting events on the track, Sanchez’s performance at his age was truly remarkable,” state the award organizers in a press release. “In between 2004 and 2012 his only global highlight was a silver medal in the 2007 World Championships in Osaka.”
For Sanchez, more than any award, his biggest achievement has been making track and field a national sport in the Dominican Republic.
“I wouldn’t change it for the world,” he said. “Before there were no tracks in the country, now kids practice the sport with all their heart.”
Sanchez said that there are very few comeback stories in track and field.
“This is a sport where you either have success early in your career and then you retire, or you have a very short career,” he said.
His second gold medal meant he joined Edwin Moses and Angelo Taylor as hurdlers who won their second Olympic title eight years after their first.
“When I started I just wanted to win a medal, no matter what color. Winning two gold medals is more than a dream, it is extra special.”