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UO track great Cruz-es along

On Sports
by:  JOAQUIM CRUZ

One of the best assignments I've had through my career as a sports writer was covering track and field for The Oregonian from 1983-89.

One of the best people I met during my time writing about the sport - which included the 1984 and '88 Summer Olympic Games - was Joaquim Cruz. Aside from Steve Prefontaine, Cruz is probably the most talented and charismatic runner in University of Oregon history.

Cruz won the gold medal in the 800 meters in the 1984 Games at Los Angeles for Brazil, then came back to claim silver at 800 in '88 at Seoul. Cruz was ranked No. 1 in the world at 800 in 1984 and '85 and still ranks No. 4 on the all-time list at 1:41.77, which remains an Oregon and collegiate record.

One of my fond memories is of Cruz's post-race press conference after winning the most star-studded 800 race in history in an Olympic record 1:43.00. In what may have been the first bilingual sports interview session where an interpreter was unnecessary, the 21-year-old repeated and answered each question in both English and his native Portuguese.

When Andrew Wheating won an 800/1,500 double at the NCAA championships in 2010, he became the first Duck to accomplish that since Cruz did it in 1984.

This summer, Matthew Centrowitz Jr. has twice eclipsed the UO school 1,500-meter record of 3:36.48 shared by Cruz and A.J. Acosta.

When Cruz set the Oregon record in 1984, whose mark did he bring down? Matt Centrowitz.

'I didn't know that,' Cruz told me when we talked last week. 'It took Matt's son to break the record, huh? That's pretty special.'

Cruz, 48, was calling from Las Vegas, where the youngest of his two sons (17 and 14) was playing in a basketball tournament.

Joaquim and his wife - the former Mary Ellington, a South Eugene High grad - have been married 20 years and together since 1983. They lived in Eugene through 1988 before moving to San Diego, where they reside.

Since 2005, Cruz has worked at two jobs. He is the U.S. Paralympic track and field national team coach for ambulatory athletes. He also runs a residential program for Paralympic track and field athletes at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif.

In the early 2000s, Cruz was conducting agility camps for injured soldiers at San Diego's U.S. Naval Medical Center three times a year through what was called a 'military summit.' When the soldier is fitted with a prosthetic, he is given the opportunity to participate in sports such as track and field. Many of the attendees became part of a resident program at the USTC in Chula Vista, preparing them for the Paralympic Games.

'If I feel they have potential for the Paralympics, I recruit them (for the USTC program),' Cruz says.

Following the Paralympics competition at Beijing in 2008, 'I felt we needed to do it on a regular basis,' Cruz says.

The medical center and USTC created a position for Cruz.

'After Beijing, a lot of our athletes were retiring from competition,' Cruz says. 'I thought it was a good idea to identify new athletes for the 2012 Paralympics. The best way to do that was' at the medical center.

The athletes Cruz works with have a variety of disabilities, including single- and double-leg amputees and single- and double-arm amputees. Some have cerebral palsy; some are blind. Through six years of experience, Cruz has learned to adjust his coaching to each situation.

'I enjoy it very much,' Cruz says. 'Technologically (with prosthetics), it's a whole new game these days from what it was even a few years ago.

'Each of my athletes is a survivor of (his or her) situation. It's very challenging for them and for me. Sometimes you have to be really creative, but that's the part I like the most - the creativity. You wind up improvising.'

Cruz has learned that fundamentals are a key in his coaching.

'My training involves a lot of exercise drills,' he says. 'For instance, when (an athlete) has one leg amputated, he needs a lot of mechanics. I had to go back to the basics. It has worked well for me. These athletes are hungry to have results, to take the challenge to the next level of competition.'

Eight of Cruz's athletes - in a variety of events, from the sprints to the distances to the jumps - participated in the Paralympics competition at Beijing, two weeks after the Olympic Games. All of them medaled.

'They did awesome,' he says. 'It's funny. One thing I learned - the process of a coach is the same preparation mentally as an athlete. I had only one thing in mind - for each of them to climb the podium (at the medal ceremony).

'But you are kind of helpless. It's not your show. Once you say goodbye to the athletes and they hit the track, it is totally out of your hands. I think it's harder to be a coach than an athlete.'

Cruz is training eight athletes for the 2012 Paralympic Games in London along with Alice Schmidt, a candidate for the U.S. Olympic team at 800 meters who placed third in the U.S. championships at Eugene last month.

The 6-3 Cruz, who weighed between 173 and 176 pounds during his career from 1983-96, says he weighs 188 now. 'Not bad,' he says.

Does he compete in any Masters races?

'I'm not messing with that,' he says with a laugh. 'Don't want to have any more injuries.'

Cruz has had six Achilles' tendon surgeries - three on each leg. They hampered a career that nevertheless included a remarkable list of accomplishments besides his Olympic medals and NCAA title double, including:

• The junior 800 world record in 1981

• Pac-10 records in the 800 (1:41.77), 1,500 (3:36.48) and mile (3:53.00) and conference 800 titles in both '83 and '84

• Bronze medal in the 800 at the inaugural world championships in '83

• One of the greatest summers in middle-distance history in '84, setting the South American 1,500 record three times and in a space of five days, running the 800 in 1:42.34, 1:42.41 and 1:41.77 at Zurich, Cologne, and Brussels. The latter clocking was .04 of a second off Sebastian Coe's world record.

Cruz began having Achilles' tendon surgeries in 1986. He held together well enough in '88 to claim silver in the 800 at Seoul.

'It was harder to get that silver than to get the gold' in '84, Cruz says. 'I had so many issues - bronchitis, surgeries. It was a huge battle for me.'

Cruz missed the '92 Games with injuries, but in 1996 made the Brazilian team for the Olympic Games at Atlanta, earning the honor to carry his country's flag in the opening ceremonies. He retired after being eliminated in the first round of the 1,500 trials.

'My career was wonderful,' he says. 'I don't regret anything. I was aggressive with my training, and I maximized my potential the best way I could. I got great results.

'I enjoyed every single minute I had in track and field. I trained hard, I competed hard. When you do that, you are going to get hurt sometimes. The question is, what do you do after you get hurt? I was able to come back, and was fortunate enough to make three Olympic Games.'

Cruz came to Oregon as a 20-year-old freshman in 1983, transferring after three months at Brigham Young in too-cold Provo, Utah.

'I have great memories of my time in Eugene,' he says. 'The older I get, the more my mind goes back there. Everything about it was special.

'On my first visit, Alberto Salazar took me out to see the city. We went to Hendricks Park and he showed me where he got married. About 100 meters from there was the house where Mary lived. Such a coincidence.

'Going to school in Eugene was great. Running there every day was like being in love with the sport itself.'

Cruz recalls a workout at Hayward Field after the 1984 NCAA meet.

'These two guys were standing there, talking,' he says. 'Every time I went by them, they would stare at me.'

Before they left, they spoke with Cruz's coach, Luiz de Oliveira.

'Joaquim, one of those guys was Bill Bowerman,' de Oliveira told Cruz. 'He told me, 'If this kid has the right mind about training, he can go really far.' '

'At the time, that didn't mean much,' Cruz says. 'After knowing what kind of man Bowerman was … he spoke a few words of wisdom and they came true.'

De Oliveira was the only coach Cruz had through his 22 years as a runner - from age 11 to 33.

'He was more than a coach,' Cruz says. 'He was a father figure - more of a father to me than my (birth) dad - a friend … he was everything to me. He pretty much adopted me, rescued me when I needed it. He predicted I could become a great runner, and I believed him. He helped me to be the person I became.'

Since 2003, the Joaquim Cruz Institute has annually provided coaching, apparel and a free lunch to 125 disadvantaged youths in five Brazilian cities, with sponsorship from Nike and Caixa Bank.

'I wish I could do more, but I live in the U.S.' Cruz says. 'It's my way to give back to the community in my home country.'

Cruz says the institute's 'Barefoot Club' - in which poor kids are given free shoes by Nike - is symbolic. At 14, growing up in a blue-collar family, basketball was his sport.

'I'm not going to hide the truth,' he says. 'I didn't like track at all. I was running mainly because Luiz convinced me to do that.'

In 1977, Cruz participated in a basketball clinic in Brazil conducted by the coach of George Washington University. After the clinic, the coach presented Cruz with a pair of Converse shoes - and the promise of a basketball scholarship four years down the road.

'I thought, 'OK, since I don't like track, it's a good reason to quit track and stay with basketball,' ' Cruz says. 'I trained harder in basketball and quit track. Basketball became the dream to me.

'But Luiz convinced me to stay in track. He said it would help me to fulfill my dream, which it did. We gives shoes to kids in our 'Barefoot Club.' Maybe that can help them realize their dreams, too.'

Of dreams, great things can come. Joaquim Cruz is proof.