PANAMA CITY, Panama – Of the seven members of Panama’s Olympic delegation, one really stands out: Irving Saladino.
The 29-year-old long jumper will try to become just the third man – and the second since 1906 –in Olympic history to win consecutive gold medals, a feat accomplished by Americans Myer Prinstein (1904, 1906) and Carl Lewis (1984, 1988, 1992, 1996).
But it won’t be easy for Saladino, the country’s first and only Olympic gold medalist who is in his final stages of training for the London Games after undergoing surgery to mend his left knee. Saladino, who will carry his country’s flag at the Opening Ceremony on July 27, first started feeling discomfort in his knee in 2005 but chose to play through the pain, though it hurt his performance.
Saladino, who will be competing in his third Olympics after failing to reach the medal round in Athens in 2004, is focusing on sprinting and controlling the aerial part of his jump.
“We want to return with the gold,” Saladino said during a recent interview with Infosurhoy.com. “We’ve worked really hard physically and mentally to win the gold despite my being injured and having a knee operation. We’ve made a superhuman effort and I feel physically fit and ready to give my all.”
His goal is to surpass the 8.40 meter jump, a mark his trainer, Florencio Aguilar, considers the baseline for an Olympic contender.
Saladino, who was introduced to the sport at age 11 by his older brother, David, more than met that challenge at the 2007 Long Jump World Championship in Osaka, Japan, where he leaped a distance of 8.57 meters. His most recent personal best was in Holland, at the 2008 Hengelo meet, where he jumped 8.73 meters.
At the 2008 Olympics, he jumped 8.34 meters to top silver medalist Godfrey Mokoena of South Africa (8.24 meters) and Cuba’s Ibrahim Camejo (8.2 meters), as Saladino won his country’s first medal since 1948.
Saladino hopes the London Games will mark a breakthrough for Panama, which will send two more athletes to London as it did to Beijing.
“All of them have worked with great discipline to get the kind of scores that would earn them a place at the Olympics,” he said. “The most significant thing is that these athletes are coming to see how they need to rely on their own efforts because waiting around for the country’s sporting organizations won’t be enough. They’ve woken up and they really want to represent Panama by giving their very best.”
Saladino’s respect extends beyond his fellow Panamanians.
“Latin American athletes are heroes who must forge their own road in order to bring glory to their country since we don’t have the resources of the first world,” he added. “This fact, along with the medals, is what we display every time we go out to represent our country and our continent.”