The morning of the first round of 400-meter hurdles qualifying in Beijing four years ago, 2004 Olympic gold medalist Felix Sanchez received word from a family member that his beloved grandmother Lilian had died.
A grief-stricken Sanchez ran his prelim that night in a pedestrian 51.10 seconds, more than three seconds off his personal best and too slow to allow him to advance to the semifinals.
"It was a very difficult day for me," he told reporters afterward. "My heart was anywhere but on the track."
Sanchez's thoughts again strayed to his late grandmother four years later in London, but this time she provided motivation rather than distraction.
With a photo of him and his grandma tucked under his jersey and "Abuela" scrawled in black pen on the straps of his spikes, the 34-year-old Dominican became a dual Olympic champ, crossing the finish line in 47.63 seconds to hold off American Michael Tinsley. Sanchez briefly celebrated the upset victory before further honoring his grandmother by kneeling in the middle of the track and kissing her photo.
"I just wanted to make her proud so I've got her name on my spikes," he told reporters in London on Monday. "The day she died in Beijing it broke my heart. That's why I ran with the picture close to my heart."
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If Sanchez's victory doesn't turn out to be the most unlikely gold-medal-winning effort of this week's track and field competition, it certainly will be near the top of that list. He won two world championships, an Olympic gold medal and 43 races in a row from 2001 to 2004, but he hadn't been in nearly as good form recently and appeared to be a few years past his prime.
The first sign Sanchez might be capable of contending came in the semifinals when he ran the fastest time in any of the heats. Sanchez followed that up with a near wire-to-wire win in Monday's final, staving off a hard-charging Tinsley over the final two hurdles to capture gold.
Sanchez could not rein in his emotions on the medal stand, bawling uncontrollably atop the podium as his country's national anthem played and the Dominican Republic flag was raised. It was a touching moment that showed how much it meant to Sanchez to honor his grandmother on track and field's biggest stage and to win a second gold medal eight years after capturing his first.
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