London 2012 success proved emotional for former Olympic champion Dominican hurdler Félix Sánchez. After heartbreak in Beijing, where he failed to even the 400m final and was therefore unable to defend his title, he took gold four years later – making him the oldest athlete ever to win a medal in the event at the Games.
The race had been billed as a battle between world number one Javier Culson and Britain’s world champion Dai Greene, but Sánchez, wearing his trademark shades, stormed to victory in 47.63s – the same time with which he won the title in Athens in 2004. Asked what the reaction would be back home in the Dominican Republic, the 34-year-old said: ‘It’s going to be huge. They expected the Worlds (he won the World Championship in 2001 and 2003), but no one expected this. A lot of people said I should retire but I stuck with it.’
But Sánchez is not one for giving up. His dream of defending the gold in China was cruelly derailed when, on the day of his heat, he received the shattering news that his grandmother Lillian had died.
Few would have predicted he could return in his mid-thirties to finally claim a second gold in such a physically demanding race, but he proved them wrong – with inspiration from his much-loved relative. Sanchez had pinned a picture of her behind his race bib and ran with her name on his spikes. And as rain began to fall in the Olympic stadium and he waited to receive his medal, he said he had felt she was there with him in the stadium. He told a press conference: ‘It started to rain. It made me feel like she was crying tears of joy with me. I’ve been emotional all week, thinking about her, thinking if I could win.’
Sánchez was born in the US in1977 but opted to run for Dominican Republic. He made his debut for the country at the 1999 Pan-American Games and from 2001 to 2003 won 43 races in a row, and was crowned World Champion twice. But after Beijing he was best by injury and seemed destined to end his career without a repeat of his Athens success. Perseverance paid off, however, and he electrified spectators with his thrilling and unexpected victory in London.
The generous sprinter has set up a foundation in his home country that gives disadvantaged children the opportunity to take up sport, providing them with clothes, books and equipment, and helping them with training and education. After taking top spot on the podium in London, he added: ‘I’ve had a lot of setbacks in the last eight years. I really wondered if I could come back. But I was dominant for so long. When you are so dominant you have a sense of confidence.’