Puerto Rico’s Jaime Espinal claimed his country’s first-ever wrestling medal when he won silver in the 84kg freestyle division at the Olympic Games London 2012. Here, he discusses his upcoming role as an Athlete Role Model (ARM) at the Youth Olympic Games (YOG) Buenos Aires 2018 and how he hopes to help educate the young competitors.
What inspired you to become an ARM at the YOG?
I was already sharing the lessons I had learned in my career in Puerto Rico with people in schools, churches and sometimes in companies, encouraging them to always fight for their goals. I thought the role of an ARM was a great opportunity for me to take this sharing experience to another level. The chance to be surrounded by elite athletes, aspiring to stand on the Olympic podium as I did, was impossible to ignore.
How much did you know about the YOG before you applied for the role?
I was aware of the YOG Nanjing 2014 and was impressed by the idea, because it is such a great opportunity for young athletes to compete at this level so early in their career. I had to wait until I was an adult before I went to the Olympic Games, but this new generation can now begin their own Olympic journey when they are teenagers.
What is the most important role of being a mentor to young athletes?
To let them know that it does not matter if nobody else believes you can achieve your goals. The most important thing is to trust in yourself and never give up. I also want the athletes to remember that it doesn’t matter if nobody has achieved before what they hope to do. With desire and belief, why can they not be the first? The only one who can choose how far they go is themselves.
Who was the most important influence on you earlier in your career?
The [two-time Olympian] Puerto Rican wrestler Franklin Gómez. He taught me, long before I became an Olympic medallist, that those athletes who had achieved that dream were not superhuman, that they were ordinary people like me. He told me that the only difference was they had made a decision to pursue that dream and that I could make the same choice in my own life.
What were the biggest challenges you faced on your Olympic journey?
People did not want to invest in my career because I was too young. Because of this, I had to wait until I was 22 years old before I competed in my first international tournament.
What do you hope to deliver as an ARM in Buenos Aires?
I am excited because I believe I have so much to share with the young athletes. I will be honest with them about the sacrifices they will have to make, but I hope to also bring energy, love and hope to everything I do in Argentina. But the most important message will be that normal people can become Olympic medallists.
Do young athletes today receive better support and mentoring than 15-20 years ago?
Definitely. The growth in social media, the internet and other forms of media have meant young athletes are more connected and able to access support and advice more easily. It has also meant they are less isolated from their friends, family and even fans, even if they are away training or competing.
What are you most looking forward to about the YOG?
I have never visited Argentina and I’m excited about experiencing the culture of Buenos Aires, sampling the food and seeing the energy of the people when the YOG takes place. I also hope to make many new friends.
Tell us about your experience as Puerto Rico’s flagbearer at the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games Rio 2016?
Before Rio, I already thought I was blessed because I had won a silver medal in 2012 in London. But in Brazil my coach told me that at every Olympics there are countries that win 10 or 30 or 100 medals, but each nation has only one flagbearer. That blew my mind and made me feel even more humble and honoured to have been chosen by my country. It was incredible to walk out in front of my fellow Puerto Rican athletes.