SANTIAGO, Chile — As Chilean decathlete Santiago Ford neared the finish line of the 1,500-meter race of his sport’s program at the Pan American Games, he slowed his pace, stretched his arms to his sides and ended the race with a walk, just like he did four years ago to enter the Andean nation seeking a better life.
A Chilean national since last year, the Cuban-born Ford won the Pan American gold in decathlon at the Santiago’s National Stadium in front of about 30,000 fans.
Ford flew from Cuba to Guyana in September 2018, took a boat to Brazil, crossed the country to get to Peru and entered Chile’s north. He then followed train tracks in the middle of the Atacama Desert to reach the capital, Santiago.
Ford felt starving and thirsty, but he managed to reach his destination.
“When it got to the finishing line I slowed, it wasn’t because I wanted to. Suddenly I remembered when I was walking through the desert at 5 a.m., stalled in the middle of nowhere, without knowing what to do,” Ford told journalists Tuesday night, with the medal on his chest and a new status of national hero.
“These last few meters were a reflex of being dehydrated in the middle of the night, but my heart and my mind knew that I wanted to be here at this moment,” he added.
The idea of traveling 6,000 kilometers (3,700 miles) from Cuba to Chile crossed Ford’s mind after a group of Chilean coaches visited the island. At the time, the decathlete had just placed fourth in the junior world championships, but he knew that that wasn’t enough in his country. So he decided to leave.
Ford worked in Chile as a bouncer to make some money at the same time he was trying to deliver a high performances as an athlete. That mix did not help his dream of winning.
“Immigrants go through a lot of things, you need a lot of work to reach your goals,” Ford said. “At first it was not like I thought, but God gave me the opportunity of reaching it.”
Ford later met coach Matías Barrera, who hosted him at his house and allowed him to go back to training. At the end of last year, he and two other athletes received Chilean citizenship, which allowed them to compete at the Pan American Games in Santiago.
Ford did not disappoint Barrera and tens of thousands of fans who now know more about his story.
“I am very thankful to the Chileans. Today I had my legs shaking during the discus event, with 7,000 chanting my name,” he remembers. “The discus reached as far as needed to get to, and today we celebrate together.”
Early on Wednesday, the 26-year-old decathlete said on Instagram he is still in disbelief about where his journey had taken him.
“After swimming against the tide for many times to be here and beat myself after six years of uncertainty … I can only say this is the START of something big that God is preparing,” he wrote. “It is thanks to the support of all these people who were there for me.”
Image credits: AP