Exactly one year from today, Joaquim Cruz will enter the buzzing Olympic Stadium in his home country for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony.
Cruz, the 800-meter champion from the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games, said he cannot even process what emotions he’ll be feeling next September. He’ll be a national coach for the U.S. Paralympics Track and Field team, bringing his athletes to his home country to compete on the biggest stage there is.
“For anyone to see the Olympic and Paralympic Games being held in their own country is a big honor,” Cruz said. “I love Brazil, but I love my athletes more. I lived the dream as an athlete. Now I have the opportunity to continue that dream in my job as a coach.”
The 52-year-old Brazilian is the coach of the U.S. Paralympics Track and Field Resident Program at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, and he has been involved with the program since 2005.
Cruz had already been living in the United States for several years — since he received a scholarship to compete for Oregon in 1983 — when he was approached in 2005 by Olympic hurdler Tonie Campbell, who was working for the OTC at that time.
Campbell said the Paralympic team needed an extra coach for several upcoming international events. What started out as a coaching consultant role for Cruz quickly evolved into a full-time position, as U.S. Paralympics was just starting to establish a resident program in Chula Vista at that time.
Since then, Cruz has coached both Olympic and Paralympic track athletes at the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Games. He now coaches seven full-time resident Paralympic athletes on a regular basis, in addition to several others who drop by for practice sessions or team camps in Chula Vista.
A year out from the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, visually impaired sprinter David Brown is arguably the biggest star in Cruz’s pack. Brown competes in the T11 class — a classification long dominated by Brazilian athletes, including today’s greats, Paralympic champions Lucas Prado and Felipe Gomes.
At the London 2012 Games, Brown failed to make it past the semifinals in any of his distances. But he won silver medals in the 400 and 4x100-meter T11-13 events at the 2013 IPC Athletics World Championships and then set world records over 100 and 200 meters the following season.
Brown will be in Brazil on Monday, marking one year to go by taking part in Rio 2016’s Paralympic Festival. He’ll compete in first-ever “battle royale,” which will pit the fastest Paralympic athletes from a variety of classifications against each other in one race. The field also includes Ireland’s Jason Smyth (T11), Australia’s Evan O’Hanlon (T38), Team USA’s Richard Browne (T44), and Brazil’s Gomes (T11) and Petrucio Ferreira (T47).
While Cruz still chats regularly with Brazilian athletes, as he remains involved on sports councils back home, he likes to think of the U.S. athletes such as Brown as his own kids.
“David Brown is every coach’s dream come true,” Cruz said. “He’s the one person who I could say is like myself during my younger days.
“He knows exactly what he wants, when he wants it and how he wants it. He’s not afraid of walking the path that will lead him to his dream. He’s not afraid of challenging himself.”
Cruz tries to model his coaching style after the man who coached him in basketball when he was 12 years old — the same coach who would ultimately transition to his track coach. Cruz thrives on long-term preparation processes and cross-training, always ensuring to sprinkle a little humor into daily routines to put his athletes at ease.
“I’d like to think that I’m this crazy coach from Brazil,” Cruz said, laughing. “I’m not afraid of running with my sprinters. I have a reputation of being a little crazy and a little different.”
Less than a month ago, Cruz actually found himself joining one athlete on the track in the midst of competition. He served as a guide runner for Ivonne Mosquera-Schmidt in the women’s 1,500 T11 race at the Toronto 2015 Parapan American Games.
“I have been running more than ever now because just a few weeks ago at the Parapan Games it was kind of nerve-wracking for me,” Cruz commented. “I said, ‘Oh my God, what did I get into?’”
In Toronto, Cruz noticed the U.S. team still has a lot of work to do before Rio, having finished second in the track and field medal count with 19 golds — 15 behind Brazil’s whopping 34.
But Cruz said the reason he’s here is to close that gap.
There’s just 365 days to go.
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.