Luguelín Santos is one of three brothers in a broken home, raised only by his mother after his father abandoned them. When he was eight, his mother asked a niece who was already actively practicing track & field, to take Luguelín and his brothers to the Bayaguana sports field in the province of Monte Plata, to keep them busy with something productive during summer vacations. That experience would change his life. Seeing several youngsters racing each other, he was overcome with the spirit of such pure competition, where the winner was the one with the strongest and fastest legs.
The zinc roof of the house where they lived had leaks that the family could not afford to repair. Focused on being a good student, he never missed school, but during recess he stayed in the classroom reviewing his homework, so that he did not have to watch his schoolmates enjoying a snack while he was on an empty stomach. Sometimes neighbors would give his mother 30 pesos, “because the kid looked untidy and had not had a haircut in months.” In those circumstances, buying Luguelín a pair of suitable running shoes was not a priority. But that did not stop him. He ran for fun, sometimes with broken running shoes, often barefoot, too often without having eaten all day, just to see how far his legs would take him.
At age 11, this dedication caught the attention of trainer Rosa Tiburcio Aquino, the person responsible for developing nearly all youngsters who have practiced track & field in Monte Plata in the last 20 years. She saw him as a child who wanted to be big and was willing to sacrifice everything. Therefore, the coach looked for ways for Luguelín to participate in all national athletic activities, even if he did not have funds to cover the transportation fare. Tiburcio’s faith in the physical and mental condition of her pupil paid off. In 2008, he swept the flat 400 and 800m dash at the National School Games with a time of 50 seconds in the first competition.
Those gold medals caught the attention of José Ludwig Rubio, the then-president of the Dominican Track & Field Federation. “At 14, the kid was already talking about wanting to be an Olympic champion,” recalls Rubio. “He has always been a dreamer, but also a hard worker.”
The Olympic horizon became a target for Luguelín in 2004, after witnessing Félix Sánchez’s gold in the 400m hurdles. Super Sánchez motivated him to dream big. “When I saw Félix entering the final stretch as the best, as if he had no brakes, and you could see in his face the pride of representing his country and the cheering, chanting and applauses of the crowd, that stole my heart,” tells Santos.
Less than a year after that first meeting with his coach, under Rubio’s supervision, he was already part of the national track & field team, and his times on the track were around 46 seconds, a time usually held only by athletes with a lot more experience. “The requirements your body demands to run at that speed are not usually found in a 15-year-old boy, but in kids that have trained for much longer,” Rubio said. “Sprinter Carlos Yoelín Santa reached the 46-second mark after he was 20 years old, so reaching that mark at only 15 was a big breakthrough among Dominican athletes.”
In 2010, in an event between Central American and Caribbean countries, held in the stadium that already held the name of his sports hero, he took home the silver with a track time of 46.19 seconds. That allowed him to qualify for the first Youth Olympic Games, which would be held that year in Singapore. There, as he entered the final stretch as the best, as if he had no brakes, he recalled running barefoot in Bayaguana, with cuts on his feet and constantly hungry, and when he stopped the clock at 47.11 seconds, he had won the first of the two gold medals that he would win in those games. The second was in the 4×400 relay.
“I proved to myself and to the world that I could, that the effort was worthwhile and that things could be done,” recalls Santos.
Because of these achievements, the Dominican Olympic Committee elected him Athlete of the Year. At a time when his idol was dealing with injuries in his career, it seemed that the future of Dominican track and field was in the legs of this youngster from Monte Plata.
But 2011 did not go well for him. In August, while training for the October Guadalajara Pan American Games, he suffered a significant injury in his left hamstring. His coach decided to cover his travel and lodging expenses to Colombia, to receive recovery treatment.
In his first Pan American Games, Luguelín thanked the investment and faith of José Rubio with two silver medals, one in the 400m and another one in 4x400m.
That led the way for London 2012.
The preparation for these Olympic Games was demanding. In the morning, 3 hours in the gym strengthening arms and legs. Then came the stretching sessions and 2 hours of rest. In the evenings, 2 to 3 hours on the track, focused on speed and arms movement. As part of his training to run in the British capital, he participated in a race of the International Federation in the Netherlands, where he recorded a time of 44.45 seconds. He also competed in the World Junior Championships in Barcelona and won another gold with a time of 44.85. He was among the top 5 in the world in the 400m dash. The possibility of a medal in London was real. There, with 45.06 seconds he secured his place in the 400-meter dash finals.
Minutes before he ran, his hero, Félix Sánchez, had turned his 2 golden running shoes into phoenixes to achieve one of the most impressive returns in track and field history. Against all odds, due to his advanced age and injuries, he had taken the gold, and the sound of the Dominican National Anthem at the stadium inspired Luguelín even more.
When he heard the starting shot, he ran the first 60m with all he had. Then in the straight, he relaxed his arms until he reached 200, just as he had practiced many times. Thereafter, he put together a progressive attack and kept on speeding up to the finish line, maintaining his speed. When crossing the finish line, his spectacular 44.46 seconds won the Dominican Republic the Olympic silver.
At just 18 years of age, Santos climbed the podium with the silver, which he enjoyed as if it had been a gold. “It has been the best moment of my career,” he recalled. “All the sacrifices to get there were worth it.”
However he went for more. In the 2015 Toronto Pan American Games he finished first place. With one Olympic silver under his belt, he went for the gold in Brazil. There, in his qualifying race for the semifinals, he achieved his best time of the year, despite a bad start, with 45.61 seconds. A day later, he bested this with 44.71 seconds. However, this time he finished tenth place and was out of the finals, ending his dream of again stepping up to the podium.
“I did not do well… I gave it all, but thought I would do better,” reflected the athlete after the race. “And this is not my year, I did not compete due to problems in both my hamstrings.”
Now he has his eyes set on Tokyo 2020, which would be his third Games. Meanwhile, Luguelín studies Sports Technology at the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico, where he also trains. He wants to use his professional experience and academic training to specialize precisely in the prevention and rehabilitation of injuries and the strengthening of athletes’ mental, physiological and social abilities.
“I PROVED TO MYSELF AND TO THE WORLD THAT I COULD,
THAT THE EFFORT WAS WORTHWHILE AND THAT THINGS COULD BE DONE””