Beyond the sweat and determination exhibited at the Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Eastern alumni who competed on the world’s biggest athletic stage gathered enough memories to last a lifetime.
Men’s track and field alumnus Eric Alejandro competed for Puerto Rico and made it to the semifinals in the 400 meter hurdles. His appearance means Eastern’s men’s and women’s track and field programs have combined to have a representative at 15 straight Olympic Games, dating back to 1960.
“It’s an important tradition for Eastern,” says Alejandro, who earned a bachelor’s in marketing from EMU in 2008 and also competed in the 2012 Summer Olympics. “I wanted to keep it going because it helps push the program forward. If my body holds up, I plan on competing in the 2020 Olympics and extending the streak even further.”
While the world focused intently on the athletes, Alejandro says there was no room for nervousness during competition.
“The Olympic spectacle looks amazing from the outside,” says Alejandro, 30. “For the athletes, it’s all about getting your body ready and staying focused, just like any other meet. If you feel confident after training, there’s no reason to be nervous.”
Alejandro had a chance to absorb the Olympic experience with his girlfriend Diamara Planell Cruz, a University of Washington alumna. She became the first female pole vaulter to compete in the Olympics for Puerto Rico. Both visited Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue, the beaches of Copacabana and other sites.
“We also met world-class athletes like Michael Phelps, Serena Williams and [tennis star] Rafael Nadal,” Alejandro says. “We saw [tennis player] Monica Puig win Puerto Rico’s first-ever Olympic gold medal. Sharing that moment with the rest of the delegation was amazing.”
The Olympics was a family affair for Miguel Ortiz, 25, who competed for Spain in the 4 x 100 meter freestyle relay with his younger brother Bruno.
“We swam the same relay together through high school, as students at the University of Michigan, and for the Spanish national team,” says Ortiz, who earned his master’s in hotel and restaurant management from Eastern this year. “I always dreamed of competing in the Olympics with my brother and loved sharing the moment with him.”
The relay team placed 14th but broke a Spanish national record, says Ortiz, who was born in Madrid and grew up in Tokyo before attending college in the United States.
“I love swimming even more now,” says Ortiz, who also competed in the 2012 Games. “I wanted to retire from competing after Rio, but I feel motivated to train for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, which I consider my hometown.”
Like Ortiz, Jeff Porter had a strong support system in Rio. While he competed in the 110-meter hurdles for Team USA, his wife Tiffany and sister-in-law Cindy Ofili ran the 100-meter hurdles for Great Britain. All three had competed as undergraduates at the University of Michigan.
“Experiencing Rio with Tiffany and Cindy was great,” says Porter, 30, who earned a doctorate in educational leadership from Eastern last year. He made it to the semifinals, as he did during the 2012 Olympics. “You try to stay in your routine and relax, but at the same time you really want that medal. It’s symbolic of all the hard work you put in over the years.”
A standout moment occurred when Porter served as a surrogate coach in the 100-meter finals for his wife, who finished seventh, and sister-in-law, who finished fourth.
“That experience was rewarding but very stressful,” Porter says. “I was pacing the track beforehand and really nervous.
“Above all, I cherished the moment and thought often of my late father, who encouraged me to run track in the first place. No one ever expected me to get this far, and I exceeded expectations by going to the Olympics twice. Dad would have been very proud.”
Contact Darcy Gifford, firstname.lastname@example.org, 734.487.5375