Hours, days, months and years of sacrifice, lost dreams, aching arms, torn muscles, extreme fatigue. All of this is part of Olympic training and it goes beyond the qualifying processes for a specific competition or the competition itself.
The search of the coveted medal means spending time away from family as well as other educational and professional sacrifices. In addition, there are the less-than-optimal conditions. The pursuit of glory, as it occurred in Ancient Greece, is something that athletes nowadays relive with the same momentum they did in the past.
“Victory is everything: listening to the Dominican National Anthem in Beijing has been the most impressive experience of my life,” says Félix Díaz, welterweight gold medal winner in boxing in 2008. “To reach the finals in boxing, you must go through a lot of sacrifices, months of training, readiness and efforts at the highest level. There are many physical and emotional blows, but wearing the gold medal on your chest makes all this disappear.”
Dominican athletes have conquered 12 medals at an Olympic level in their history (7 of them in Olympic Games and 5 in the Youth Olympic Games). Among the Olympic Games, we include the gold medal won by Félix Díaz and the 2 gold medals won by Félix Sánchez in the 400m hurdles as well as the silver medals conquered by Gabriel Mercedes in taekwondo and Luguelín Santos in the 400m dash, and the bronze won by Pedro Julio Nolasco in boxing and Luisito Pie in Taekwondo. The Youth Olympic medals were won by Luguelín Santos (2), Fanny Chalas, Juan Solano and María Gabriela Brugal.
Historical Moments of the Dominican Olympic Committee
What does it take to reach an Olympic podium, an achievement reserved for three athletes per event and category, among thousands and thousands of athletes that seek to include their names in the pages of history?
This difficult road depends not only on the person’s will or simply their physical condition, but on a substantial investment in time, money and efforts.
“An athletes’ training begins from the moment a sport is chosen,” explains Bernardo “Tony” Mesa, technical manager of the Dominican Olympic Committee. “Once the athletes develop at a school level, [those who stand out] go on to the youth levels.”
The youth levels involve a process of athletic improvement: training for performance, with sights set on being part of the national teams, begin with the cadet level. It generally takes an athlete 4 to 5 years in this stage to polish their skills and become part of the elite category. However, there are extreme cases, such as Luguelín Santos, who, given his advanced development, made the jump from the youth level to elite category in only a few months, taking part in the 2010 Youth Games at age 16 and in the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Those who reach the elite level have trained from 6 to 8 years in an internal process which includes counselors, trainers, physical trainers and nutritionists.
Before they reach the Olympic cycle they first take part in the Central American and Caribbean Games, where they face athletes from countries with similar socio-economic conditions.
Following these games, usually a year later, the Pan American Games take place, where more developed countries, such as major sports powers like the United States, Brazil, Cuba, Mexico and Canada participate. Nowadays, a Central American and Caribbean medal establishes a certain level to opt for the continental growth leading to the Pan American Games. The 36 federated sports go through qualifying processes which are held in the months before the competitions.
Since 2010, the Youth Olympics have been included as part of the Olympic cycle and of the qualifying process for the Olympic Games, and serve as a platform for the 13-14, 15-16 and 17-18-age brackets, in which the categories are sub-divided, and where the Dominican Republic has had good results.
In 1998, with the intention of fighting child obesity and promoting youth participation in sports activities, the Austrian industrial manager Johan Rosenzopf, proposed the creation of the Youth Olympic Games. but it wasn’t until 2007 when the president of the International Olympic Committee, Jaques Rogge, officially introduced them.
The first version of these Games was hosted by Singapore in 2010. It was here where the Dominican Republic introduced one of its main athletes in track and field.
Luguelín Santos ran like the wind and took the gold with a time of 47.11, which he celebrated just 2 years before his silver medal in London 2012. He also won another gold medal in the 4x400m relay as part of the team that represented the Americas in the event, with a time of 1:52.11, along with Brazilian Caio dos Santos, Jamaican Odane Skeen and Najee Glass from USA.
Also in Singapore, Fanny Chalas took the bronze with a time of 11.65 in the women’s 100m dash.
Four years later, in the Youth Olympics in Nanjing, Dominican boxer Juan Carlos Solano won silver. In the same Games, Dominican Equestrian rider María Gabriela Brugal won a team bronze medal representing the United States. Although the medal was not awarded to the Dominican Republic, history was made and she is projected to be a promising athlete in the sport.
“An athlete on the Olympic road is going to train 6 to 8 hours a day, between physical strengthening with weights, exercises, training in their discipline, stretching and resting. It’s a complete effort,” says Ludwig Rubio, former president of the Dominican Track and Field Federation, and Luguelín Santos’ trainer. In addition, athletes must maintain an orderly eating pattern, in stages, just like they do with their training.
To keep their health and physical condition in top shape, as well as to recover from injuries, a good nutritional regime goes hand in hand with supplementation. Nutrition must cover the high-calorie burn; if not, it can affect the recovery process. “Aside from that, there could be cases of adrenal fatigue and metabolic damage, increasing injuries, gastrointestinal, cardiac, respiratory and even neurological episodes, such as peripheral nerve damage,” explains Dr. Erika Arias Ortíz, a sports nutrition specialist. “Without a daily general calorie, macro and micronutrient chart, and regular intake and recovery schedule, the athlete’s talent cannot reach its full potential, neither will they have a solid foundation for a successful career.”
After the Pan American Games, usually a year before the Olympics, there is a more intense period during the training stage for the athletes who pursue a role among the Olympic elite. Training hours increase and they are focused on improving their performance to qualify and win a medal, and this is where the mental part of the job becomes the most exhausting part of all. In fact, if you cannot win a medal, and all the efforts are lost in defeat, the mind will give you two options: to strive or to simply give up.
“You must have support, no doubt about it, because you have to face a great psychological pressure,” gymnast Yamilet Peña explains. “It happened to me during the Central American and Caribbean Games in Mayagüez. But with the proper support, you can overcome anything.”
All the logistics support involves a significant financial investment. In the Dominican Republic, there is a joint investment, with funds provided by the Government and the private sector, mainly through the Program for High Performance Athletes and New Inmortals (PARNI) and CRESO. Athletes receive a monthly grant to cover their nutrition and training as well as scholarships at the elementary, high school, college or post-grad levels.
The emergence of CRESO has provided athletes and sports federations the much-needed peace of mind to plan their calendars.
The costs also take their toll at a human level. Luisito Pie, the most recent Dominican Olympic medalist in the 58kg. division in Taekwondo, knows very well about the physical demands of his sport. “Training sessions are extreme. Sometimes in very hot weather, sometimes for long periods of time, but you can accomplish it, and you can assimilate it when you want something, when you want to reach a specific goal.”
His predecessor, Gabriel Mercedes, spent two months abroad prior to his silver medal in Beijing 2008. He jokingly recalls that when he returned home victorious, his small children, did not remember him. “But representing the Dominican flag is the greatest pride I have ever felt,” the tatami star recalls. “The feeling of having fulfilled my duty with the country, of listening to the people shout out your name, crying and smiling for you, is more than enough acknowledgment and motivation to give the best of yourself.”
Tony Mesa worked closely on with Mercedes’ training for the Beijing Games, and clearly knows the balance that should exist between the physical stress that an athlete deals with and the techniques to endure it. “A high-performance athlete can withstand tachicardia episode of up to 270 beats a minute; this shows you the physical stress they have to deal with,” Mesa explains. As reference, an average adult enters in tachycardia after 100 beats per minute.
Aside from the personal satisfaction and the pride of representing your country in front of the world, the Dominican athlete seeks social recognition through sports. There is a possibility of improving their living conditions through athletic achievements.
The Olympic warrior’s job is not easy. It requires a lot of physical conditioning and effort, but most of all a lot of heart, and this is evidenced by the glories of Dominican sports.