Felix Sanchez ran the Olympic 400-meter hurdles final with the memory of his late grandma on his mind and in his heart.
He ran with a photo of the two of them pinned beneath his race bib, and “Abuela” — Spanish for “Grandmother” — written on his yellow spikes.
And after those shoes carried him to a no-doubt-about-it victory in 47.63 seconds Monday night for his second career gold at age 34, and the Dominican Republic’s first medal of the 2012 Games, Sanchez pulled out that picture, placed it down on the track, knelt and tenderly kissed the image of the woman who raised him.
“I’ve been really emotional all week, thinking about her,” Sanchez said. “All of us do it — you think about winning, you train so hard. You get to this moment and everything has to go right for you to pull it off.”
Sanchez won the 400 hurdles at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Four years later in Beijing, he woke up on the morning of his preliminary heat to the news that his grandmother had died. Sanchez thought about dropping out but decided to run, and he wound up with the 22nd-fastest time of 25 finishers.
“I ran terribly. I cried the whole day. I was very emotional,” he recalled. “After that Olympics, I made a promise that I was going to win a medal for her.”
He separated himself from the pack down the stretch, so far ahead that he could start celebrating early, sticking out his tongue as he crossed the line and letting out a scream.
“I went out probably too hard. I came off the 10th hurdle and I was very tired. And for about three or four strides — about 5 meters — I was just waiting for someone to pass me. But then about 10, 15 meters to the line, I knew at that point no one was going to pass me,” said Sanchez, who went to the University of Southern California. “And then it got surreal, and I was just overwhelmed with emotion.”
Those feelings welled up even more strongly a short while later, when Sanchez stepped atop the podium for the medals ceremony, the raising of the Dominican Republic’s flag, and the playing of the national anthem.
It began to drizzle, and Sanchez began sobbing. He covered his face with his hands and spectators offered a loud cheer of support in response.
“Ironically, it started raining. It just made me feel like my grandmother was crying tears of joy,” Sanchez explained at his news conference, choking up. “She was proud of me.”