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Ancestral Athletes: American Runners Chase Olympic Dreams for Other Countries

[Editor’s note: This story has been updated from the original version posted on July 1 to reflect Olympic results.]

David Torrence vividly remembers sitting on his grandmother’s porch in the Reseda neighborhood of Los Angeles with his sister and cousins after school when he was a kid in the mid-1990s. They’d do homework, eat picarones and sip Inca Kola while waiting for their parents to pick them up after work.

Picarones are a traditional Peruvian fried dough treat similar to a donut or a beignet that are made from pumpkin or squash and flour and served with a sweet syrup. Inca Kola is a gaudishly bright yellow soda from Peru with a lemony flavor that, he says, although available at some stores in the Los Angeles area, typically only Peruvian kids seemed to like.

“Some of my friends would come over and try it and the majority of them wouldn’t like it. It was a Peruvian thing,” Torrence, an elite American distance runner, recalls with a laugh. “As kids, we definitely all knew we were Peruvian—the Peruvian culture, the food, the language, the music was all around us at our homes and at family gatherings—and we were very proud of it.”

His mom, Bianca Torrence, grew up in Peru and emigrated to the U.S. in the 1990s with her parents and five siblings. As the family grew, they maintained their connection to the vibrant Peruvian community that was prevalent in the San Fernando Valley. (His dad, who died when David was 6, hailed from the U.S.)

“Everything we did as a family and the customs and attitudes of my family was all based in Peruvian culture,” Torrence recalls.

As he grew up in the Los Angeles suburb of Tarzana, though, Torrence, became a typical American kid. He liked American music, movies and sports teams, just like the rest of his friends. He ran cross country and track for Loyola High School in Los Angeles and improved enough during his senior year to run a 4:10 mile, win a few state titles and earn a scholarship to UC-Berkeley.

Since graduating from college in 2009, Torrence, who is 30, has emerged as one of the better middle-distance runners in the U.S. between 800 and 5,000 meters. Working under veteran U.S. coach John Cook, he’s continued to improve his times as a professional—including 3:52.01 in the mile and 13:16.53 for the 5,000. (After being backed by Nike for several years, he’s now sponsored by Hoka One One.) He’s also won four U.S. titles, set an American record in the 1,000-meter run indoors, helped the U.S. win a silver medal in the 4 x 1,500 relay at the IAAF World Relays in 2014 and earned a silver medal in the 5,000 while wearing a Team USA singlet in last summer’s Pan American Games in Toronto.

Like just about every elite distance runner, Torrence has dreamed of running in the Olympics since he was a teenager, and four years ago, he was so close he could taste it.

He ran smart and competitively to get through the prelims of the 1,500m at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore. In the final—which was one of the deepest U.S. middle-distance race fields in decades—he was in contention with 150 meters to go. But his hard-charging sprint down the homestretch wasn’t quite fast enough and he finished a disappointing sixth—missing a chance to run in the London Olympics by three places and a mere 1.02 seconds.

It was a harsh reality that immediately relegated his Olympic dreams to a four-year hiatus.

But this time around, Torrence didn’t race in the July 1-10 U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, where the top three finishers earned a spot on the U.S. team bound for Rio de Janeiro. Instead, he’s competing in the Olympics for Peru—the country from which his mother’s side of the family hails—in the 5,000m.

“I’m very grateful for the opportunity to run for Peru, both to represent my family and the country,” Torrence says. “My family has been wanting me to do this for a very long time, both my family in the U.S. and in Peru. I first looked into it back in 2008, but I didn’t think it was the right opportunity for me at the time.”

Torrence is very familiar with the culture and the customs of Peru. He has visited there numerous times since he was a kid, including several post-collegiate, high-altitude training sessions over the past several years. He did a training stint there last fall while visiting family for the holidays and again recently while preparing for his 2016 outdoor track season.

Strangely enough, as the U.S. Olympic Trials got underway in Eugene, Torrence was the No. 2 ranked U.S. runner in the 1,500 (3;36.02) and the fourth-ranked runner in the 5,000m (13:19.4). But the U.S. has plenty of depth in that event, too, and, Peru doesn’t have any other runners who have surpassed the Olympic qualifying standard in the 800, 1,500 or 5,000.

Torrence, one of only about two dozen athletes competing for Peru in Rio, narrowly advanced to Saturday’s Olympic final in the 5,000m on Aug. 17 after running a 13:23.20—a new Peruvian national record. Although his time was faster than the winning time in the first heat, he was the last of the non-automatic qualifiers allowed into the final based on time.

The irony of Torrence’s situation—and perhaps a state of the modern Olympics—is that while Torrence will be competing in a Peruvian racing kit, two runners in the field—Bernard Lagat and Paul Chelimo—are Team USA competitors who were born in Kenya. Also, the pre-race favorite and defending champion is British runner Mo Farah, who is a native of Somalia.

“I think I would have had an excellent shot at making the U.S. team, but this is a decision I made and I’m happy with it,” Torrence said back in June. “Whoever makes the team for the U.S., it will be a competitive group. I was happy and proud to represent to the U.S. when I did, and now happy and proud to represent Peru, and hopefully be able to inspire some people there and maybe impact the running culture in a positive way, too.”

Torrence is one of a handful of U.S. distance runners competing for another country at this summer’s Olympics in Rio. Among the others are Colorado Springs-based marathoner Carlos Trujillo, who is representing Guatemala; Oregon’s Alexi Pappas, who placed 17th in the the 10,000-meter run while competing for Greece; and Oregon’s Aisha Praught, who placed 14th in the 3,000-meter steeplechase for Jamaica. (San Francisco’s Jorge Maravilla attempted to reach the 2:19:00 Olympic qualifying standard in the marathon on July 3 so he could run for El Salvador but came up just short.)

It’s not a new trend—it happens every four years in numerous Olympic sports. Each of these runners has a different story, but they’re unified with the intent of following the dream of running in the Olympics for a country that is tied to their family heritage.

“I feel so blessed to have the opportunity to run in the Olympics,” says Pappas, who is connected to Greece via her maternal grandmother who was born there. “It’s a dream come true.”

RELATED: Olympic Dreams Unfolding on and off the Silver Screen for Alexi Pappas

Like Torrence, Trujillo was born in Los Angeles. His parents, Carlos and Maria, are both from Guatemala and met in the L.A. area after each had emigrated to the U.S. the 1980s when they were 18. Both are trained chefs; they later moved the family to Middleton, Idaho.

Although he only visited Guatemala on a few occasions as a young teen, Trujillo and his family always embraced their ancestral culture—primarily through food, family and language.

“I grew up speaking Spanish and really immersed in the culture of Guatemala even though I was born here in the U.S.,” Trujillo says.

After a solid collegiate career running for Oregon—Trujillo won the Pac-10 10,000-meter title as a senior in 2008—he moved up to the marathon and eventually lowered his PR to 2:14:21 at the 2012 Chicago Marathon. That effort made him one of the top 20 American marathoners for the year. He competed for the U.S. at the 2013 IAAF World Championships in Moscow, placing 38th in 2:23:13 amid oppressive heat.

At the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon on Feb. 13 in Los Angeles, Trujillo struggled in the mid-day heat, finishing 68th in 2:29:24 while his former Oregon teammate Galen Rupp won the race in 2:11:12.

But all along, the option of running for Guatemala was a possibility because he had already dual citizenship—provided that he earned the Olympic qualifying standard of 2:19:00 again.

“A few years ago, I was down in Guatemala for a race and they said, ‘You already have dual citizenship, you speak the language … have you ever thought about running for Guatemala?’” says the 29-year-old Trujillo, who visited the country a couple of times as a young teenager. “I kind of had thought about it. With both of my parents born there and for me growing up in that culture, I always felt like I was connected to it. My thought was, ‘If we can see how it goes the next couple of years, then, yes, definitely, I would be more than happy to represent that country.’”

After the disappointing race in L.A., Trujillo had a short window to recover and race again. He signed up for the May 1 Eugene Marathon more or less knowing it was a last-chance opportunity to run in the Olympics. With the help of training partner Daniel Wallis, who paced him through the halfway mark in 1:09:20, Trujillo won the race in 2:18:54, just barely squeaking under the necessary qualifying standard.

“I knew I was close,” Trujillo says. “When I got to the 26-mile mark, I knew I needed 60 seconds to make it comfortably and I only had 50, and that’s when I started sprinting really hard. I knew that a chance to run at the Olympics was on the line.”

Over the next six weeks, Trujillo made two trips to Guatemala as the country’s federation worked feverishly to secure his paperwork and nail down his spot on the Olympic team. It all became official about a week ago, when he was given his blue and white Guatemalan race kit. You can tell he’s genuinely excited because his face lights up when he mentions it.

“Yeah, it’s really good,” he says with a grin.

Trujillo is one of 21 athletes Guatemala will be sending to the Rio Olympics. He’ll join 38-year-old four-time Olympian Jose Amado Garcia—and the country’s national record-holder with a 2:13:53 PR—as Guatemala’s only other runner in the marathon.

To be fair, Trujillo would have had to finish among the top three at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials marathon in L.A. to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, and, on that particular mid-February day, it would have required running 2:13:00. That would have been more than a minute faster than he’s ever run and almost 6 minutes faster than the Olympic standard qualifying time he ran in Eugene.

But Trujillo’s Olympic opportunity is less about running a race in a certain time and more about ensuring a part of his family’s past will be a big part of his future.

“My parents are pretty excited for me. They’re happy with where I began and how I improved over the years and that I’ll represent the country they grew up in,” says Trujillo, who is sponsored by Skechers and competes for the Front Range Racers. “I’m honored to have this opportunity, especially because I was around the culture growing up. It’s a country that needs exposure and a positive outlook, and that’s what made me decide to want to run for Guatemala. I want to be able to help that country and put it on the map from an athletic point of view.”

Not everyone is so enamored by the idea of athletes temporarily or permanently giving up their loyalty to their native to compete for another country, including IAAF president and two-time Olympic gold medalist Sebastian Coe. It’s happened for years in the opposite direction in the U.S., where foreign runners have emigrated to the U.S. or applied for citizenship after finishing college here. That includes legends like Bernard Lagat (Kenya), Alberto Salazar (Cuba) and Sydney Maree (South Africa), as well as younger runners like Leonard Korir, Samuel Chelanga and Shadrack Kipchirchir, all natives of Kenya who ran in the 5,000 or 10,000 at the U.S. Olympic Trials in July. [Update: Kipchirchir and Korir placed second and third in the 10,000 and ran for the U.S. at the Rio Olympics in that event. Korir placed 14th and Kipchirchir finished 19th.]

Some call it athletic opportunism. Some call it downright cheap, a cop-out move that’s only pursued when it’s clear that the chances of earning a spot through the U.S. Olympic Trials could be insurmountable. The anonymous trolls on message boards call it much, much worse.

Diego Estrada just calls it a mistake.

The 27-year-old runner who lives in Flagstaff, Ariz., is speaking from first-hand experience. Four years ago, he was an All-American collegiate athlete for Northern Arizona University. Entering the 2011-2012 school year, he told his coach, Eric Heins, that he wanted to redshirt the indoor and outdoor track seasons to focus on training for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials.

Although he grew up in Salinas, Calif., near Monterey Bay, he was born in Michoacán, Mexico and was always a Mexican citizen. (His parents, Francisco and Rosa Constantino Estrada, emigrated to Northern California when he was 13 months old.) But he was told that if he applied for U.S. citizenship in the fall of 2011, he could become eligible to participate in the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials and try to make the U.S. Olympic team bound for London.

But that went awry when confusion about his citizenship and the timing for application arose and he found out he wasn’t going to be able to compete in the Olympic Trials after all. “There was some miscommunication and, being a college kid without the resources of a professional runner or the ability to consult with an agent, I found out I was misinformed,” he recalls.

In the spring of 2012, the Mexican track and field federation reached out to Estrada and told him that if he ran Olympic qualifying standards in the 5,000- or 10,000-meter events before the end of May, it would select him to the Mexican Olympic team that would compete in London.

“I ran the qualifying time in early May and at that point, it was a no-brainer, I was going to be an Olympian,” Estrada says.

While he was excited for the opportunity and proud of his Mexican heritage, something didn’t feel right. He walked in the opening ceremony of the Olympics with the Mexican team and felt out of place. He would go on to run a respectable race, finishing 21st in the 10,000m in 28:36.

“But that didn’t sit well with me,” he says. “I realized I wasn’t doing the right thing. I wasn’t representing my actual home country. It just wasn’t right.”

His decision to run for Mexico hung heavy on him for two years. (Because he didn’t have U.S. citizenship, he raced for Mexico in the 5,000 at the 2013 IAAF World Championships, but placed a distant 12th in his semifinal heat in 13:48 and didn’t advance to the finals.) He says he lost confidence in his running and motivation to train, two things he attributes to not being part of the American system. “I was grateful for the opportunity, but I knew it wasn’t right,” he says.

Estrada says his mom and my siblings have always been supportive of his running, no matter if he’d run for China. But his dad was very patriotic toward the U.S. and he wasn’t too happy with him running for Mexico.

“He was becoming a U.S. citizen at the time, and, as a family our interpretation of our situation is that America has given us so much,” says Estrada, who himself became a U.S. citizen in May 2014. “This country has given me and my family opportunities we never would have had and why not try to represent this great country?”

Becoming a U.S. citizen helped revitalize Estrada’s running, as did guidance and direction from American coaching legend Joe Vigil and sponsorship from ASICS. Just a few months after becoming a U.S. citizen, Estrada won his first U.S. title at the 5K road championships in 2014. He also won the U.S. half marathon championships in January 2015, running the seventh-fastest time (1:00:51) in American history.

On July 1 in Eugene, Estrada will toe the line in the 10,000-meter run with 26 other American athletes trying to earn a spot on the U.S. team that will compete in the Rio Olympics. He has one of the fastest times in the field, but the race will be very competitive and will likely take a 27:45 effort or faster to make the team. It figure to be a competitive race, but his PR of 27:30.53 means he’s capable of being in the mix.

If he doesn’t finish in the top three in the 10,000, he could also try to make the team in the 5,000. But if he gives everything he can and still comes up short in both events, he’ll be OK with that too.

[Update: Estrada didn’t complete the 10,000m on July 1, but he did run fast enough in his 5,000m semifinal race on July 4 to advance to the July 9 finals for a chance to earn an Olympic berth in that event.]

“At this point, if I don’t make the U.S. Olympic team, I can live with it just knowing that I went through the American system,” he says.

Estrada graduated from NAU in 2013 and finished his career as a nine-time All-American. He’s since bought a house in Flagstaff—“it’s a small, fixer-upper, but it’s a place I can call home”—and has immersed himself in training.

He tried to make the U.S. team in the marathon, but he didn’t have a good race at the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon on Feb. 13 in Los Angeles. He was in the lead group of 10 runners through mile 18, but wound up not finishing the race. Still, he says, he was proud to have been out there, running in the pack with the country’s best runners and hearing the fans cheering from the sidelines.

“I’ve experienced it on both sides and there is nothing like trying to represent the country where you live,” he says.

Although he still has regret about his 2012 Olympic experience, he’s proud to be an American citizen. He raced for one of the U.S. teams in the elite race at the Bolder Boulder 10K on Memorial Day, finishing third in 29:40 (and first among Americans) and leading one of the U.S. squads to a second-place finish in the team standings.

He has no problem with other American runners chasing their Olympic dreams for other countries. It just wasn’t the right thing to do for him.

“When I’m older and I tell my kids that I made an Olympic team, I’d really like to say that it was an American Olympic team,” he says. “It’s not that there is anything wrong with the Mexican team, it’s just not my home. I was born there, but it’s not my home. America is my home and I couldn’t be more proud to race for this country.”