Long journey to Olympics for one-time high school phenom Vazquez

28-year-old volunteer coach at the Illinois Institute of Technology to represent Puerto Rico in 1,500 meters

On June 14, 2003, Sam Vazquez ran the Adidas National Scholastic High School Meet in Raleigh, N.C., against one of the fastest prep mile fields ever assembled. Vazquez won in 4 minutes, 3.87 seconds, beating — among others — eventual two-time U.S. Olympian Leonel Manzano.

Vazquez, then a high school senior, and his coaches, present and future, justifiably figured he was on a fast track to make an Olympic team as well.

Almost nine years later, in an unheralded June 16 Indianapolis race that ended just before midnight, the 28-year-old volunteer coach at the Illinois Institute of Technology went back to the future.

By running the 1,500 meters in a national-record time of 3:37.60, Vazquez qualified to join old rival Manzano in the metric mile at the 2012 Olympics.

The difference is Vazquez's time is the national record of Puerto Rico, his ancestral homeland and the country for which he will be running in London.

The difference is Vazquez's career got so far off track that he spent several years running in place — when he was running at all.

"Sam had gone back to square one," said Peter Hopfe, his coach at Flagler Palm Coast (Fla.) High School andEmbry-Riddle Aeronautical University. "He had regressed to the level of when I first met him after his freshman year of high school."

Too immature for the academic challenges of college, Vazquez threw away a chance to develop in one of the country's top track programs by not caring about classes and flunking out of the University of Arkansas after finishing fourth in the Southeastern Conference 1,500 as a freshman. He moved back in with his mother in Florida, drifted from one low-paying job to another and was out of the sport for four years.

"The job that woke me up was being a sandwich maker," he said. "I was thinking, 'Someone should be making sandwiches for me.'

"At times I do regret what happened at Arkansas. Things would be so different now. I probably would have a pro contract. But I probably wouldn't have met my wife."

Vazquez met Flo Silva, 23, a native of Uruguay, in Florida through a mutual friend. They married five years ago.

She encouraged him to return to running and school. They both earned degrees last year from Embry-Riddle and ran on the track and cross-country teams. He won an NAIA national indoor title in the 1,000 meters as a senior.

"I really grew up," Vazquez said. "Going to class with Flo all the time helped me concentrate on doing two things at once and doing them both well."

They moved to Chicago last July, when she got a job in revenue management with United Airlines. They live with her mother, two dogs and a cat in a South Loop apartment that costs three times as much as their rent in Florida. They make ends meet on Flo's salary so Sam can concentrate on running.

"I wanted him to follow his dream even if we struggle financially most of the time," Flo said. "In the end, hopefully he will get a sponsorship."

Before he entered Arkansas, Vazquez represented the United States at the Pan American Junior Championships. After so many years away from running, Vazquez realized his best chance to return to elite international competition would be as a Puerto Rican, no matter that the little Spanish he speaks is with a Uruguayan accent.

Seven of the 23 athletes on Puerto Rico's 2012 Olympic team live in the United States.

Vazquez ran the 1,500 for Puerto Rico at the 2011 Pan American Games, finishing ninth. Then he began chasing the Olympic "B" qualifying standard, 3:38. It took eight races to get it.

"I knew it was in there," Hopfe said. "Sam has it back. Now he has to take it to the next level."

Hopfe acts as a mentor for Vazquez, who essentially coaches himself during workouts at the University of Chicago track. In the last two years, his times finally have become faster than what he clocked in high school.

"I think the time off saved my body," he said. "If I can gain a sponsor, I want to try to run another eight years. I'm still learning."

phersh@tribune.com

Twitter@olyphil
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