LONDON – Felix Sanchez’s tears carried double meaning.
On the victory stand, his eyes flowed with joy.
He’d just regained the Olympic 400-meter hurdles title, the one he’d last claimed in 2004.
And they flowed with sadness.
This was for his beloved grandma, Lillian, who’d passed away as he was running at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
Her name was inked into his spiked shoes. Her photo was tucked into his Dominican Republic singlet.
In just 47.63 seconds, all these emotions were triggered.
In just 47.63 seconds, he’d done what just a handful of Olympians have ever done — won an Olympic medal; relinquished it four years later, then regained it another four years later.
In just 47.63 seconds, he’d beaten backs the bids of all the world’s finest 400 hurdles talent; he’d even beaten USA team captain Angelo Taylor, who’d already done what Sanchez was doing last night.
Taylor had won this event in 2000, never got past the semis in 2004, but won it all back in 2008.
So this was Olympic drama at its height.
This was a story surely reverberating all the way back to Washington Heights, where Sanchez was born and where he still has relatives.
Oh, the many different angles to it. He’s a USA citizen not running for USA. That a situation dating back at least a dozen years.
Born in NYC — not far from the Armory — his family first moved across the river to Newark, then all the way west to San Diego.
As he progressed from quality high school runner to NCAA titlist at Southern California, as he tells this story, no one from USA Track & Field, our national federation, ever showed interest in recruiting him to its national team.
But the federation of Dominican Republic — where his parents were born — showed interest, lots of it, from the very outset.
Soon he was suiting up for Team DR.
Soon, Team USA discovered what it was missing.
Past college, Sanchez emerged as one of his event’s absolute all-timers. He went unbeaten over the 400 hurdles in 43 straight races between 2001 and 2004, capping it all with that victory in the Athens Olympic Games.
This part is downright eerie — he took gold in Greece in 47.63 seconds; eight years later, he took gold in London in 47.63 seconds.
How long can the odds be on that happening? Two zillion to one?
In high school, he played baseball and wrestled, but a broken wrist forced him to shift direction. A track coach took young Felix under his wing; the rest, as they say, is history.
The honors came in profusion through his peak years — Central American and Caribbean Confederation male athlete of the Year; Latin American Sportsman of the Year; 2001 and 2003 world champion.
He was the DR’s first world track titlist, He carried the DR flag at Opening Ceremonies, He won the DR’s first track gold at the Pan American Games. Olympic Stadium in Santo Domingo was renamed Felix Sanchez Stadium.
Such designations often come on the downside of a once-brilliant athlete’s later years.
And, sure enough, there were some — when his performances seemed to lag, for reason of injury or whatever — suggesting it was time he hung up his spiked shoes.
Smartly, Felix Sanchez never listened to these nay-sayers. He knew his body was resilient enough to handle the strain of world class training and racing. He knew that he’d never lost his gold-medal technique.
And so he was out there again, Monday night, running for glory, out of lane seven. USA’s Michael Tinsley took the silver in 47.91, best time of his life; Puerto Rico’s Javier Culson settled for bronze at 48.10.
USA team captain Angelo Taylor, the 2000 and 2008 Olympic king, settled for fifth in 48.25, just back of Welshman David “Dai” Greene, the 2011 world champion and principal hope of Team GB.
“When I came to the 10th hurdle, I was very tired,” he said. I was waiting for someone to come up and pass me. But with 10 meters to go, I knew no one would.
“That’s when it got surreal; that’s when it got emotional. I didn’t make any mistakes and that’s why I won the race.
For Grandma Lillian. For Team DR. For his good friends in Santo Domingo and Washington Heights.