On his right shoulder, he has a tattoo of an “S” that stands for Superman, a nickname he was given because of the intensity with which he trained. On his back, he has an inscription in Japanese that means “strength”, the same he printed on the tracks for over 17 years. On his left pectoral, he has the Dominican flag, just above his heart which he gave to the 10 million Dominicans who celebrated with him every Olympic gold he gave to the country.
That ink tattooed on the body of Félix Sánchez is as indelible as the impact the Olympic and world 400m hurdles two-time champion has left on Dominican sport.
However, that story was close to never being written: Félix was born in New York to Dominican parents that divorced when he was two; from there, he moved with his mother and grandmother to San Diego, California. Even far away from the half-island, he did not lose contact with his roots thanks to his grandmother Lilian, the surrogate mother that cared for him while his mother was working.
As a good Dominican, Sánchez wanted to be a baseball player, and played the sport until the age of 15, when a broken right wrist took him out of the field. To stay in sports, he decided to join the school track and field program.
His first year on the tracks was disappointing, but before giving up he tried hurdles. There, to his own surprise, he began recording the best times of the entire school; that sealed his love for the discipline and won him a scholarship to the University of Southern California (USC), where he majored in psychology.
“Superman Sánchez” became his new nickname at USC. A friend suggested he should engrave the man of steel logo on his body, with the S that also fit well with his last name. «When I saw myself with the tattoo for the first time, I said to mysel “now I have got to run well, because I cannot come in last with a Superman tattoo on my shoulder!,”» he recalls laughing.
And so, he began to try and fly at another level. In 1999, at age 21, he took part in the qualifying rounds of the U.S team that would go to the World Track and Field Championships in Seville that August. He finished sixth with a track time of 51 seconds and did not make the team. His grandmother asked him to represent the country he carried in his blood, and called the Dodgers’ coach, Manuel Mota, to help him get in contact with the Dominican track and field authorities.
“Félix was a skinny kid, who barely spoke any Spanish at the time, but had great determination,” Mota said. “In our first conversation, he convinced me he was worth helping.” He knocked on the doors of the newspaper El Siglo, and after an article about him, the Federation met their new prospect.
Sánchez continued training on the track of his alma mater, and that same year, in the Winnipeg Pan American Games, he wore the Dominican colors. He qualified for the 400m hurdles final, making the second fastest time at 48.83, a tie with Brazilian Eronilde de Araújo. A day later, Sánchez finished fourth with 48.60 in a race won by the Brazilian. But for him, that first step as a Dominican runner represented a positive in his life, it was the first time he broke the 49-second mark. Something had changed within him.
He was right. In the London 2001 Track and Field Grand Prix, he started what is now considered one of the greatest winning streaks of his discipline, with 43 straight wins. Eighteen days later, he won his first world championship in Edmonton, with a time of 47.49 seconds.
While at that peak, it was time for the Santo Domingo Pan American Games in 2003. A crowd of 35,000 people in the Olympic Stadium chanted his name. His gold running shoes were a message to the other runners, that gold was his. With 48.19 seconds later, Superman Sánchez celebrated his victory wearing the Dominican flag as his cape.
After being crowned two-time champion at the Saint-Denis World Track and Field Championship, came a cherished dream: the Athens 2004 Games. There, the starting gun went off in the finals and Sánchez took over the race from his first hurdle jump, and with a time of 47.68 he would cause the notes of the Dominican National Anthem, composed by José Reyes, to be heard for the first time on Olympic grounds.
The Dominican Republic returned all that love he had professed, with a shower of tributes, including one of tremendous value to him. By Act of Congress, on April 8, 2005, the stadium where he won the Pan American gold two years before, was renamed Félix Sánchez, in his honor.
After Athens came his kryptonite, a series of tears, spurts and calf muscle injuries made his participation in his third Olympics seem more a recognition of past performances, than an expectation of victory.
The morning of the race, he received the news of his grandmother’s passing. “I had no desire to run, but I did it for her,” he says. On the track of the Beijing Olympic Stadium, he seemed lost. “I finished last, and that was the worst competition of my career,” he recalls sadly. “I thought about retiring.”
Despite setbacks, he kept on trying. In 2010, he participated in the Central American and Caribbean Games in Mayagüez, and did not reach the podium. In the Pan American Games of Guadalajara 2011 he won bronze in 400m hurdles and silver in 4x400m relay. Two races prior to the London Olympics, he finished third and sixth. By summer 2012 he was already 34, an advanced age for hurdles.
“I CANNOT COME IN LAST WITH A SUPERMAN TATTOO ON MY SHOULDER!””
However, as a psychologist, Félix knew that an important part of track and field is the athlete’s state of mind. After running in the semifinals, he felt “the title was going to be his.” On the day of the finals, he went to the Olympic Stadium feeling nervous for something uncommon, he had hidden a picture of him with his grandmother and fastened it with pins behind his number, and was fearful that it would be taken from him during the pre-race inspection. Incredibly, it went undetected. There, he realized that his “Nana” would be running with him, on his chest. Félix was not running for himself, but for her.
He came out calm and full of confidence. With three hurdles left to the finish line, he became aware that Puerto Rican Javier Culson and American Angelo Taylor were further back than he had anticipated. Upon crossing the finish line with a comfortable lead, he dropped to the ground, took the picture out and kissed it. It was one of the most impressive comeback stories in Track and Field history. After eight years of poor performances, Félix Sánchez was back, with uncontrollable tears of joy, at the top of the podium.
In 2016 he was training for his fifth Olympics, but decided to hang his cape following the birth of his son. “I thought the birth of my son would serve as motivation to win another medal, but I realized it was not worth staying away from my family.”
He has several plans for his retirement, some of which are in progress. Currently, he is a commentator for ESPN, and in the medium term, he wants to create a track and field academy in the Dominican Republic, so he can continue to support his country.