The Central Park of Bayaguana, in Monte Plata province, wakes up every day with the passing of hundreds of employees on their way to work, who before starting the day sit on park benches and chat and take advantage of the moment to shine their shoes. Dozens of shoeshine boys try to position themselves to get the most customers. In 1991, a 12-year-old defended his position literally with kicks and fists. It was that important to him, because the six Pesos he earned before going to school were his contribution to helping support his 7 siblings at home.
In 2008 that kid, already an adult, earned an Olympic silver medal with those same kicks. His name was Gabriel Mercedes.
As a teenager, Mercedes channeled his energies away from those street fights that so tormented his parents and towards a new hobby: taekwondo classes sponsored by the Ministry of Sports and Recreation. One of the requirements to enroll in these classes was precisely to avoid all after-school fights. His coach, William Comanche gave him an ultimatum: “If you don’t stop fighting in the street, don’t bother coming back.”
Comanche could sense the talent in this young man, the fascinating motor intelligence that made him a sports diamond in the rough. “Before practicing taekwondo, I played basketball and baseball,” recalls Mercedes. “In baseball, I was even better than players who later became professionals but there was a bias against signing up little people, so I quit baseball and started practicing taekwondo.” Thanks to the discipline of Comanche’s teachings and his student’s willingness, Gabriel reached a turning point at age 14, when he began to take the sport seriously.
The change in his mindset could not have happened at a better time. Taekwondo officially became an Olympic sport at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, after having been only an exhibition sport in the Seoul 1988 and Barcelona 1992 Games. Warming up with a Pan American bronze in Santo Domingo 2003, Mercedes qualified in the second Olympic tournament in Athens 2004, finishing third in the pre-qualifying competition. After losing his first match against Mexican Oscar Salazar, he won by default when Ukrainian Oleksandr Shaposhnyk failed to appear. Then, to advance to the bronze, he had to face Egyptian Tamer Bayomi, whom Mercedes kicked in the head in round three and broke his lip but was awarded no points by the referees. Gabriel lost the match 6-0, and earned fifth place and an Olympic Certificate.
What might have been a disappointment to many, served as motivation for Gabriel. He had gone to Athens without the expectation of winning a medal, but there he realized his abilities were at the highest level. He launched his quest to stand on the podium in Beijing 2008.
However, the road was not an easy one. He had daily workouts at the Combat Pavilion in the Juan Pablo Duarte Olympic Center every morning to work on agility, conditioning and durability, and two hours of practice every evening. In between he studied accounting at the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo. In fact, after the Olympic Games in Athens, he felt compelled to take a break from sports for a year to devote time to his academic studies. On weekends, to complement his income, he drove a bus within the family-assigned route between his native Monte Plata and Santo Domingo.
All these efforts, buttressed by the sponsorship of the Dominican Government’s Support for High Yield, New Values, Immortal Athletes Program, (PARNI), paid off. In 2007 he won the medal he most cherished in his career: the Rio Pan American Games gold.
But his Olympic medal still eluded him. He arrived in Beijing with high expectations. After defeating the Athens champion, Chinese Chu Mu-Yen, and three time world champion Juan Antonio Ramos of Spain, he earned a medal in the finals against Mexican Guillermo Pérez. Unfortunately, by the judges’ tie-breaking decision, Gabriel was awarded second place. A silver is no small feat. Although he did not achieve his ultimate goal in retrospect, he views the experience favorably. “I put the Dominican Republic on the map with an unprecedented medal in my discipline,” he explained. “I can’t look back and complain. Making decisions in difficult times is a job for people with a goal.”
“SPEED WAS HIS MAIN SKILL, AND THE INTELLIGENCE AND AGGRESSIVENESS
HE SHOWED FORTH IN EVERY FIGHT. THAT IS WHY HE WAS THE BEST FOR SO LONG””
Four years later, after he had won the gold medal in the previous Central American and Pan American Games and was crowned champion, and after training in Mexico and Europe, he was in tip-top shape. He was the favorite to win gold in London in the 58kg category.
“His workouts were intense but he never spent more than three hours per day on the tatami to prevent exhaustion,” said Tony Mesa, technical director of the Dominican Olympic Committee. “With that technical training protocol, nourishment and very detailed breaks, Gabriel knew exactly what he had to do.”
Right then, when everything pointed out to what would be his best Olympic performance, he suffered the greatest blow of his career: the cruciate and anterior ligaments, and the meniscus in his right knee gave out. These physical problems eliminated his chance to win a medal and forced him into early retirement from sports.
His aggressive and fast style helped to easily surprise his opponents and gave him 47 victories in 55 international matches. “Gabriel always fought with his heart and left everything he had on the tatami,” says José Mora, former head of the National Taekwondo Team and one of the trainers of the Monte Plata-born athlete. “Speed was his main skill, and the intelligence and aggressiveness he showed forth in every fight. That is why he was the best for so long.” Mercedes is regarded as the top athlete developed 100% in the Dominican Republic.
Today, he is a National Police major, studying to become Lieutenant-Colonel. Aside from this, thanks to the iron disposition that made him emerge from his impoverished financial situation to become a Dominican glory, the name of Gabriel Mercedes is still remembered, as a motivational lecturer in his native country and abroad, especially in Mexico where he is recognized as one of the best taekwondo athletes ever born in this continent.
In 2016, he officially announced his retirement from the sport, and took up his new role as official liaison between athletes and the Ministry of Sports, which will help create better conditions for his colleagues to train and handle day-to-day activities.