By Luke Holthouse
Jamie Skaggs ’15 vividly remembers watching her track and field coach on TV the night of Aug. 6 this summer. Felix Sanchez, the man who taught Skaggs how to hurdle, was about to prove that he was the best in the world at it.
“At first he wasn’t in the lead,” Skaggs said. “And then you see him just beat everyone by a lot. It was so exciting to see him win.”
When Sanchez comes back from his family’s home in the Dominican Republic back to Studio City in the spring, he will return with his second Olympic gold medal in the men’s 400-meter hurdles.
He won the first one in Athens back in 2004. At 26, Sanchez posted a time of 47.63 in the final to claim the first ever gold medal for the Dominican Republic.
In Beijing in 2008, Sanchez qualified for the event, but battled both a foot injury and heartbreak when his grandmother, who raised him, died days before the final.
Sanchez had to wait another four years to get back on top of the podium.
With the word “Abuela,” Spanish for grandmother, written across his racing spikes and a picture of her tucked inside his jersey, Sanchez finished two body lengths ahead of American silver medalist Michael Tinsley.
“I’ve been really emotional all week, thinking about her,” Sanchez said to the Associated Press. “All of us do it — you think about winning, you train so hard. You get to this moment and everything has to go right for you to pull it off.”
At 34, Sanchez posted a time of 47.63 to claim the second ever gold medal for the Dominican Republic.
Former Head of Athletics and current Head of Upper School Audrius Barzdukas watched on television with his family. His daughter Mila Barzdukas ’15 is also a member of the track team.
“We watched the race,” Barzdukas said. “But as importantly, we watched the man. He is a great runner and a great hurdler. He’s a better person and that’s what really made it so special. He exemplifies effort, persistence, all the things that we want to teach ourselves and all the things we want to be.”
Sanchez works directly with the hurdlers on their form throughout practices during the season. Despite his vigorous workout schedule for his own career, Sanchez finds a way to make almost every track team practice and ever meet during the spring season.
Laurel Aberle ’13, another hurdler on the track and field team, said that Sanchez still structures the team’s workout when he is unable to make practice.
”At first, you don’t realize how lucky you are or how crazy it is and you think he’s just another coach,” Aberle said. “But then he’ll give you these little insights and little stories. He’ll say like ‘Oh yeah, I usually get nervous before a race,’ and then you realize he’s talking about the Olympics and you just feel like in awe or that you’re just not worthy of him.”
Aberle, who began running hurdles her sophomore year, says that she has seen tremendous improvement in her form and technique from working with Sanchez. In two seasons, Aberle has seen her time in the 100m hurdles drop from 21.52 at the 2011 Los Angeles County Championships to 16.79 at the 2012 Mission League Finals.
“When he is teaching, you can tell that he knows exactly what he is doing from experience,” she said. “It’s really cool because I feel like a lot of the time, people that are good at something aren’t necessarily good at teaching it. But because he has been trained for so many years, he is so good at training others as well.”
Barzdukas anticipates that Sanchez will be back to coach the Wolverine track team this season, but did not know when Sanchez was going to retire from competing.
Since the Olympics, Sanchez has competed at the International Association of Athletics World Championship in Berlin, winning the 400m hurdles with a time of 48.89.
Barzdukas added that the athletic department had not planned any temporary public display of Sanchez’s medal for the school, but he does expect Sanchez to bring it to a few practices next year.
“He’s a pretty understated guy,” Barzdukas said. “He’s a guy who always looks forward to the next thing. We’re going to want to do something, but I think what he’s going to want to do is go to practice and help our kids be better hurdlers. I think that’s how he’s going to celebrate at Harvard-Westlake.”