By Karen Price | Dec. 19, 2019, 1:02 p.m. (ET)

Joaquim Cruz was inducted into the Brazilian Olympic Committee's Hall of Fame for winning gold in the 800-meter in 1984 and silver in the same event in 1988.

 

Growing up in Brazil, Joaquim Cruz dreamed not of being an Olympic track champion but rather a basketball star.

When he was 12 years old, however, his basketball coach, sensing a talent of a different kind, talked him into giving running a try at the Brazilian age group national championships and it altered the course of Cruz’s life.

“I went to Sao Paulo a month later, broke two national records in one day, made the national team to go to the South American championships in Uruguay and won three gold medals,” he said. “No one had to convince me to run track anymore.”

Cruz, who is the resident Para track and field coach at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center for the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, is still the only Brazilian athlete ever to win an Olympic gold medal in the 800-meter, and last week he was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Brazilian Olympic Committee.

“When you’re watching a baseball game they talk about this athlete is a Hall of Fame, same thing with basketball and football,” said Cruz, who won gold in the 800-meter in 1984 and silver in the same event in 1988. “This is the first time somebody’s inducted me into the Hall of Fame in Brazil. How am I supposed to feel about it? It’s really weird, it’s a new thing for me. It’s something I think is going to soak in for a while then when I’m a little older this is going to be a great thing.”

Cruz’s accomplishments as a junior track star in Brazil were his ticket to the United States. He was recruited by Brigham Young University but said he left after the first winter because it was too hard to train there, and ended up at Oregon. While there, he won two NCAA titles in addition to several Pacific-10 Conference titles and set several records, and became the best 800-meter runner on the planet when he became the Olympic champion in his debut.

He returned to the Olympic Games in 1988, winning silver in the 800-meter, then missed the 1992 Games because of injuries. His third and final trip to the Games came in 1996 when, after numerous injuries and surgeries, he competed in the 1,500-meter distance but did not make the final.

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Even before he retired from competition in 1997, Cruz had already dabbled in coaching. After retirement, he coached individuals, children and high school students, soccer players and basketball players, he said, but he truly found his calling in 2005 when he was hired by what was then the USOC to work as a consultant with the Para track and field team and then, shortly thereafter, as a coach in Chula Vista.

“My first experience with Para, I went to the track to watch them and just stood observing,” he said. “I said, ‘I can coach these guys. They can do anything. Yeah, maybe they don’t have a leg, or they don’t have an arm, or they’re blind, but they’re athletes.’”

The job brought him home, he said, in the sense that his whole life was about long-range planning and training for the Olympic Games. His first trip to the Paralympic Games with his team was in 2008, and overall it wasn’t as successful a trip as he’d hoped in terms of athlete performance and medal count. Athletes they thought would medal in two events medaled in just one, or some not at all. He learned a lot, he said, about what he could and couldn’t control.

The following year the organization tapped Cathy Sellers to serve as the U.S. Paralympics Track & Field Program’s associate director of high performance, and it took about eight years, Cruz said, for them to build the program to what it is today.

“We brought new kids into the pool and put a system in place with rules and high standards, really competitive standards,” he said. “At first the athletes complained but they rose to the occasion and became more competitive. We also have a lot of new athletes with new hopes and dreams. … All these results are the fruits of what’s been planted in the last eight to 10 years.”

At this fall’s world championships, the U.S. won 34 medals, including 12 golds, and they also had 12 athletes finish fourth and 10 finish fifth, many of whom were young and competing for the first time, Cruz said.

“That’s good stuff to see and we’re looking forward to next year,” he said.

After last week’s ceremony, Cruz will remain in Brazil, where he’s still recognized on the streets of Sao Paolo despite being in the U.S. the past 38 years, he said, through the holidays.

His induction to the Hall of Fame, he said, is good for the country’s Olympic history.

“And it’s good for the new generation of athletes to know that if they have great accomplishments their work and dedication and sacrifice will be remembered forever,” he said.

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic & Paralympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.