By Bill Littlefield
The United States will send 530 athletes to the London Olympics. Cape Verde, a republic of 10 islands off Western Africa, will send three. One of them is Ruben Sanca.
“I started running back in middle school and high school,” Sanca said. “I was a soccer player, and my coaches convinced me to do some running to help with my soccer.”
Ruben Sanca, now 25, moved from Cape Verde to Massachusetts when he was 12. He has dual citizenship, but when returned to Cape Verde to compete in the 5000 meters at the national championships, his welcome was muted.
“Several of my friends from home had forgotten about me, because they never thought of myself as a runner,” Sanca said. “I was born with asthma, and the first few years of my life was a hardship for my family because I was in and out of the hospital at all times, and I was sort of known as the weak child of the family, so after I came to the U.S. and went back home and won a national championship there, people were very surprised.”
Those people won’t be surprised to see Sanca competing in London, but some of the students with whom Sanca works at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where he’s the business manager of student affairs, may be.
“Some students don’t even know I’m a runner, and I try not to … I don’t really bring that up to their faces. So if you go over to my office, you probably won’t find any trophies or medals hanging around,” Sanca said.
That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of trophies and medals in a drawer somewhere. Sanca has won numbers of half-marathons and competed successfully at various international events. His best times in the 5000 meters suggest that he’s unlikely to medal in London, but Sanca has goals that have nothing to do with hardware.
“I’m going to try to represent my country with the goals of developing the track and field program here and there in Cape Verde,” he said. “Until this year, 2012, we actually never had a track surface in Cape Verde. Now, we just built a surface, we have a national championship, we have track meets there.
“So my first goal isn’t necessarily to go and win a medal, isn’t to go in and break a world record. I’m going with the purpose of representing my country to inspire others.”
Sanca has already inspired those who’ve come to know him at UMass-Lowell, where he earned both his undergraduate and masters degrees while commuting and holding down a work-study job. It was a schedule that meant he did most of his running before the sun rose and after it went down.
After he’d been awarded his MBA, Ruben was offered employment at the university,an opportunity his coach, Gary Gardner, urged him to decline.
“I think they made three separate job offers, each one better than the last, before he finally agreed to come here as a full-time employee, so it was just an opportunity – with his family background – that he couldn’t afford to pass up that kind of security,” Gardner said. “He’s a kid that’s from an immigrant family, and when he got to that point, I backed him up 100 percent.”
Gardner will be backing up Ruben Sanca in London, too. He’ll be the sole member of the runner’s entourage, and Sanca will be the only athlete he has to coach.
Gardner said that he has been impressed by Sanca’s talent, his maturity and work ethic ever since he recruited Sanca out of John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Boston. As a coach, Gardner is realistic about what his runner is likely to accomplish at the London Games, but he sees this adventure as part of a process.
“The race of his life would probably be, at this point, making the finals,” Gardner said. “Our goal is to get him into that trials race and be able to hang in on that trials race and make the finals as best we can. Our long term goal, and what we really have aimed for over the last six years, is really to get him ready for a marathon in four years from now.”
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Very soon, Ruben Sanca will be heading for London. There he will join sprinter Lidiane Lopes and Adyzangela Moniz, who competes in judo, and the team from Cape Verde will be complete. Perhaps together they will sing their tiny nation’s anthem, which includes the line, “Hope is as big as the sea which embraces us.”
As I said goodbye to Sanca in Lowell and wished him luck, it occurred to me that since Cape Verde will only have three athletes at the Games, he had a one-in-three shot at carrying the flag in the Opening Ceremonies. He smiled, like a gentleman, and shrugged.
“Yeah, we’ll see,” Sanca said. “There are two girls going. We’ll probably give the opportunity to the ladies to carry the flag. But if they don’t want to carry it, I’ll be happy to carry it.”
And why not? For years now, he has balanced a full-time course load, a job, a long commute and the rigors of training twice a day for international competition. How hard can it be to carry a flag?