Friday, December 11, 2009
The roots of the Academia de Atlestismo began with his grandfather.
Until he was two, Roberto lived with his mother and father. It was an unusually happy beginning for a child in Nicaragua. But his world changed that year when his father left. Not only because he no longer had a dad, but because his mother began working full time (full time in Nicaragua is Monday through Saturday) to support their smaller family, so he rarely saw her either.
Roberto spent plenty of time alone and with friends, but he also spent time with his grandparents, his absent father's parents. At age 8 he moved in with them and would go to the stadium with his grandfather (who was a track coach for the university), but when he moved back in with his mother a year later, he stopped. He played nintendo, he played with his friends, he played baseball, he forgot about the track.
When Roberto reached 12, and showed no signs of special promise at baseball (a friend of his is currently training with the Mariners, it's a common Nicaraguan dream), his grandfather began to petition him, nearly every day, to start running again. By this age it was more common to begin training for track and so there was already a group of boys Roberto's age there.
In the beginning, he was a little fat, but his grandfather and great-uncle, who was also a track coach told him he had potential. That was encouraging, but he was mostly faithful to training because that's where his new friends were.
At first he ran distance, like 5000 meter races. His grandfather had been a marathon runner and so he saw that potential in his grandson. But despite constant training, Roberto never managed to win a long distance race.
When he was 15, Roberto switched to 800 and 1500 meter races. There he had a bit more luck, winning occasionally. But at 17 he switched again, this time to the 400 meter race.
And that was that.
Months later he won his first Central American Championship in Guatemala with a time of 50.36 seconds. He felt very relaxed at the beginning of that race, he wasn't favored to win, but even today he can hardly describe the elation he felt as he felt the finish line pass by and he heard his national anthem while on the medal podium.
He followed that with a win at the same competition the following year in the 400 meter hurdles with a time of 56.87 seconds. In those years, Roberto was traveling to Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Cuba and England for races.
In some of these races Roberto was representing the National Athletic Federation, in others he ran for the University Polytechnic Rivas, located in his hometown. After graduating from high school, Roberto received a scholarship of $15 per month to attend this University he had been running for (organizations can have runners within their clubs that have no other affiliation to the organization). It was because of this running scholarship Roberto was able to graduate four years later with a degree in Banking and Finance.
And what if that diverting force hadn't been there?
At best Roberto could be working in a hot bakery or pedaling a rickshaw from street to dusty street with his high school education.
But more likely he would be like the other guys from his neighborhood. Pushing a filthy arm between bars on the door of a home to beg for money, to buy a little more crack. Filled with scars from close calls with the wrong end of a knife. Or learning how to do worse while in prison for armed robbery.
But Roberto was fortunate. He doesn't have to face that person because of the support, love, community and life lessons he received at critical moments in his life from so many.
The Academia de Atletismo truly started long ago. It began with Roberto's first pair of running shoes and his first pair of track spikes, all gifts from his grandfather. It's potential grew through lunch and dinner every day for eight years at his grandparents house. It was not always a sure thing as Roberto's mother and grandfather fought with him to stay in school.
But in the end the Academia born out of and became a place for the same actions, love and the raising of a child.
And he wants that for other children in Rivas. This is why.
Roberto: I began the Academia de Atletismo first because I am very grateful for what was done for me. Now I want to help other children who are going through what I went through, or worse.
My hope for the children is not that they all win races, but that they get an education and a career. I hope that they become people who are good for society. I hope that they learn respect, discipline and to love one another as brothers and sisters.
The value of helping isn't very strong in Nicaragua. But I hope that as a group, as they help each other every day, they learn how important it is and that someday it will seem normal to them. And then they can help others.