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Joaquim Cruz’s Ascendancy From the Brazilian Slums to Superstar Runner Has Not Been Easy One; Still, He’s Found the Eugene Life Style Very Much to His Liking as He Settles Into This Post-Olympic Year : BORN TO RUN

Times Staff Writer

Joaquim Cruz’s long, sinewy legs, which carried him out of a Brazilian slum and to a gold medal in the Olympic 800-meter race last summer, were being pounded and manipulated by a therapist the way one would tenderize a steak.

Occasionally, when the therapist reached a sensitive spot near the hamstring, Cruz winced and tightened his muscles. It was obvious that, on this day, Cruz wasn’t enjoying his hour-long massage.

But if there was any soreness at all in Cruz’s legs, surely it was being relieved by his personal version of Magic Fingers.

“Naw, I still feel tight,” Cruz said, talking softly so that neither his coach nor therapist would hear. “It’s just another part of my training.”

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The daily condition of Joaquim Cruz’s legs is vitally important, so every precaution is taken. His long, graceful stride, which belies the speed and strength those legs possess, has helped Cruz become the world’s best 800-meter runner and a man who could potentially dominate the middle distances for years.

Just 22 and three years removed from his native Brazil, Cruz already has accomplished more than many world-class runners have in their careers.

In the last year, Cruz’s progress has been startling. In the spring of 1984, won both the 800- and 1,500-meter races at the NCAA meet. Then in the Olympics, he beat an exceptionally strong 800-meter field in Olympic-record time.

His domination continued on the European circuit late last summer when he ran under 1 minute 43 seconds three times, including once in a blistering 1:41.77 in Cologne, West Germany. That time was just .04 of a second off Sebastian Coe’s world record.

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It was after his amazing string of victories in Europe that people in his adopted home of Eugene and elsewhere finally learned how to properly pronounce his first name. In Brazil,

the language is Portuguese, not Spanish as in the rest of South America, so Joaquim is Joe-AKEEM, not Wah-KEEM. In any event, he can simply be called the best at his distance.

The scary part, at least for middle-distance runners from Great Britain to Kenya, is that Luiz de Oliveira, Cruz’s coach and confidante, believes that Cruz hasn’t reached his peak. And now that Cruz has turned aside nearly every challenge in the 800, he is starting to concentrate more on longer distances. Cruz will run against Americans Steve Scott and Sydney Maree in the mile at Saturday’s Pepsi Invitational at UCLA.

Is it any wonder, then, that the 27-year-old Coe walked up to fellow Briton Steve Ovett after the Olympic 800 and said: “Aren’t we too old to be playing with fire?” Later, Coe reportedly told friends that he would no longer run major 800s. “This is not fair,” he said. “I’m being mugged by a teen-ager.”

Cruz, a junior at the University of Oregon, is merely a baby in the world of big-time middle-distance running. And although the runner may not be at his athletic peak, the man has matured lots since leaving Brazil at 18 to seek fame, a minor fortune and an education in the United States.

“Joaquim has become a different, better person,” de Oliveira said.

This is more than just another story about a fast and precocious athlete going for the gold. It is about an impressionable Brazilian from an impoverished environment and a young coach-father figure united by a common dream of a better life.

For all the trappings of track and field success that have become an accepted part of Cruz’s life, though--the sudden fame in his home country and recognition elsewhere, the lucrative shoe contract with Nike and healthy appearance fees, the new BMW 318i in the parking lot--he never forgets what it was like growing up poor in Brazil.

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There are times, if the truth is known, when Cruz doesn’t want to think about the past and certainly doesn’t feel like talking about it to strangers. But it is there with every breath he takes, every long stride he makes on the track.

Stretched out on a training table at Athletics West late one typically rainy Eugene afternoon, Cruz addressed an interviewer directly.

“I said to Luiz that I hope (the reporter) doesn’t ask anything about my past because I’m tired of talking about it,” Cruz said, smiling and without aggravation.

Make no mistake, Cruz is proud of his heritage and he returns to Brazil at least twice a year to visit friends and family. He’ll tell you all of that after some gentle coercing. Besides, Cruz knows that the only way for an outsider to adequately appreciate his success story is to review where he came from.

By most definitions, Cruz grew up poor in Taguatinga, a city of 300,000 in central Brazil near Brasilia, the capital. The area in which the Cruz family lived was called a favela , which has been described as a hopeless slum. But Cruz earnestly maintains that the situation wasn’t that bleak at his home.

“You use the word poor, but I didn’t think we were poor,” said Cruz, in good English, although he still prefers speaking Portuguese. “I mean, we were in a poor neighborhood, but we weren’t poor. A poor family is one that doesn’t have anything to eat. I had breakfast and a big lunch, as big as any lunch here in America. So, I don’t think I was poor. I just didn’t have money all the time to buy things.”

Poor, indeed, is a relative term. But even Cruz describes growing up as a struggle to survive.

Joaquim Cruz Sr. moved his wife, Lydia, and five children from their farm in the north of Brazil to Taguatinga in 1960, three years before Joaquim Jr. was born, because he had heard that there were construction jobs available in Brasilia. There were jobs, but they didn’t pay much. So Cruz’s father labored day and night as a steel worker and still brought home only about $50 a month.

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The Cruz house had dirt floors and no one had a bedroom to himself. But de Oliveira recalls that that the Cruz home was always clean and had an aura of happiness and hope. After a few years of saving and skimping, the family moved into a house with wooden floors.

Maybe because Joaquim was the last born, he was not sent to work, as were his four sisters. Occasionally he would shine shoes or sell oranges to help out, but nothing full time.

Instead, he spent his mornings in school, his afternoons at a playground or on the street, and his evenings at home with his mother. The only times Joaquim Sr. was around were early in the morning before work and at night before bed.

“I really didn’t even think about working,” Cruz said. “I used to help my father, but it was just odd jobs and things. No big deal. I liked my (childhood). When you’re a kid, you don’t think about anything like not seeing your father. But when I got older (14 or 15) and started thinking about my father and the relationship between us, I wanted to do something about it.”

Because he spent so much time alone and because there were no Tonka trucks or miniature train sets to keep him occupied, Cruz used his imagination and tried to make his own toys. Sometimes he repaired broken toys that had been discarded.

He also discovered sports. At first, he kicked a soccer ball around with the other 11-year-olds in the neighborhood.

But one day, at the urging of a friend, he showed up for basketball practice at his elementary school. The coach, a stocky, strong-willed former soccer player named Luiz de Oliveira, saw a tall, gangly kid watching with interest from the sideline and approached him.

That meeting spawned a relationship that has endured for 10 years.

“To be honest, I didn’t want to play basketball,” Cruz said. “I didn’t want to do anything. A friend of mine asked me why didn’t I join. I told him that I go home and have fun playing soccer or something.”

Although hesitant at first, Joaquim was eager for competition and, some amateur psychologists might surmise, a strong father figure. He found both while playing basketball for de Oliveira.

As a keepsake of their early years together, de Oliveira keeps two faded color photographs of that first basketball team. You can’t miss Cruz in the pictures. He is the tallest, and skinniest, on the team.

“When he first started, there was no way of telling (whether) he’d be an athlete,” de Oliveira said. “He was just 11. But after two years’ training, I knew. Joaquim could’ve been a very good basketball player because he had coordination, even at an early age.”

Cruz didn’t continue as a basketball player long after leaving elementary school, though. The same boy who had told Cruz about basketball whispered in de Oliveira’s ear about Cruz’s running prowess.

At that time, the only running Cruz ever did was conditioning for basketball. Instead of the customary anaerobic workout for basketball, de Oliveira had his players develop a good aerobic base by running long distances. It was something de Oliveira had learned while studying physical education--basketball, track, soccer, volleyball--at the University of San Carlos in Sao Paulo.

“Those kids were in incredible shape,” de Oliveira said. “They pressed all the time. We beat everybody in the district. They did long distance and circuit training.”

Upon hearing of Cruz’s speed, de Oliveira had Cruz run 1,500 meters after basketball practice one day. Cruz, then 14, was clocked at 4:45, and de Oliveira told Cruz to forget basketball and concentrate on running.

Because de Oliveira was his coach and somebody who cared--"I believed in anybody who wanted to treat me well,” Cruz told a friend recently--Cruz ran. After winning a school race that qualified him for the Brazilian junior championships, Cruz quit the sport. It wasn’t fun, Joaquim told de Oliveira.

After much cajoling by de Oliveira, and a pair of new track spikes as an inducement, however, Cruz ran in the meet. Going against runners four years older, he finished third in the 1,500 in 4:02.3. That delighted de Oliveira, but Cruz threw up on the track and quit again, presumably for good.

“I liked basketball,” Cruz said. “You didn’t have to depend just on yourself. You had 12 players. There wasn’t the sacrifice. I was an all-right runner because of the base Luiz gave me. I really didn’t want to run, but I ran for Luiz. After that bad experience, I stopped.”

De Oliveira said there was another reason.

“What was happening at the time was that he was poor and his parents couldn’t afford it,” de Oliveira said. “They needed him to work, even if it was only a few hours. It took his parents a month to buy him (running) shoes.”

De Oliveira, who was struggling to support his own family, knew Cruz had untapped talent that needed refining. He also knew that Cruz’s ability could be a way for each of them to find a better life. The only problem was that Joaquim didn’t want it. Or if he wanted it, he apparently wasn’t willing to work for it.

For a few months, Cruz went to school and coached a youth basketball team, a job arranged for by de Oliveira, who still had hope that Joaquim would change his mind.

“I stopped the car one night, looked over at Joaquim and we talked,” de Oliveira said. “I explained to him that track and field would be good for him in the future. It would be a chance for him to come to the U.S. and learn English and get an education. I told him that it would be a chance to travel, meet different people, help his family. He really wanted to help his family.”

The lure of the United States and Europe and the prospect of perhaps helping his family finally persuaded Cruz to commit himself to running. It perhaps can be argued that de Oliveira’s goals became Cruz’s goals, but Cruz is such a strong-willed person that that seems improbable.

All along, Cruz was looking for some purpose to run. Now, he had it.

After only a month of training, Joaquim, then 15, ran extremely fast times in both the 800 and 400 meters. De Oliveira consulted veteran track coaches to improve his knowledge of middle-distance running, but he had already provided Cruz with an excellent base.

When Cruz was 17, he was unbeatable in his age group and was the talk of the neighborhood. His father took time off work to watch his son run. That meant a lot to Joaquim.

“I wanted to get to know my father better,” he said. “I asked him to watch me run and do stuff with me and he did. I tried to get to know him better, but he died. I feel sorry that I didn’t get to know my father as I wanted.”

Joaquim Cruz Sr. died of a heart attack in 1981, at 50. He was ill for the two years before his death, and had been forced to switch to a less strenuous job.

His father’s death hit Joaquim hard. But when it came to running, it made him more motivated than ever. Two months later, Cruz ran the race of his young life in Rio de Janiero, a 1:44.3 in the 800, which set a world junior record.

“It took a long time to get to that point,” de Oliveira said. “But once Joaquim got there, we knew it was time to move on.”

The move they had in mind was to the United States. Where in the U.S., they weren’t sure. But Brazilian middle-distance runner Agberto Guimaraes was attending Brigham Young University and arranged to have Cruz admitted to the school. De Oliveira sold his belongings and moved his wife and three children to Provo, Utah, to be with Cruz.

Joaquim’s first few months in the United States were disastrous. It wasn’t just the snow, which he had never seen before, and the culture shock. A tendon problem in his right heel had bothered him earlier that year and had followed him to the United States.

“I wish it had stayed back in Brazil,” Cruz said, laughing.

Cruz wasn’t laughing about the injury back in 1982, though. All his plans, and de Oliveira’s, depended on Cruz’s running ability. But the heel injury was so painful he couldn’t even slip on a training shoe without discomfort. The early years of running in flimsy shoes or none at all had so abused Cruz’s feet that he had developed bone spurs, as well.

It also was discovered that Cruz had been born with his right leg slightly shorter than his left. That, combined with the other problems, threw Cruz’s graceful stride out of kilter.

“I had those problems since 1979,” Cruz said. “But every year, it kept getting worse. I never had any special treatment until I came here (Eugene).”

So, when it was suggested that orthopedic surgeon Stan James of Eugene, Ore., examine the heel, Cruz and de Oliveira also examined Eugene. They liked the area, which is considered a runner’s haven. Continuous rain was a lot better than continuous snow, Joaquim thought.

Another factor, which has been downplayed, was that de Oliveira would later be offered sponsorship by Nike to coach Cruz and other athletes. Nike is based in Eugene. Even after moving there, Cruz still was bothered by the foot, so he underwent surgery in Houston that summer.

“The recovery was very tough on me and Luiz,” Cruz said. “Luiz got a lot of criticism back home. When we left the country, a lot of people were saying that I wouldn’t be able to run good times anymore if I came to the U.S. and that I’d get hurt. It looked like they were right.

“I wanted to prove to them I could run anywhere. All I did was ride a bike, swim and lift (weights). I won’t say that was my worst time. On one side, it was very bad because I wanted to prove I could run but I couldn’t. But on the other side, it gave me time to rest my body. It gave me time to study and learn the language.”

It took many hours of studying for Cruzto speak, read and write English. He failed the University of Oregon’s admission test three times before finally passing.

Cruz won’t admit it now, but he once told Sports Illustrated that there were times during 1982 when he considered returning to Brazil.

“Sometimes I had doubts about learning the language,” Cruz said. “But I never had any doubts about getting into the university and getting an education.”

Eventually, the doubts about recovering from the heel injury evaporated. With the aid of a special built-up shoe developed by Nike, Cruz was able to start training again. It was a slow and arduous return, but just hitting the roads and getting on the track again lifted Cruz’s spirits. First, it was just long, slow distance work every other day.

Eventually, though, Cruz was able to compete for the University of Oregon. In 1983, he won the NCAA 800 with a time of 1:44.91, which was surprising to de Oliveira because Cruz’s training was not geared to the NCAA meet.

Oregon Coach Bill Dellinger, one of the most respected distance coaches in the nation, did not have any say in Cruz’s training, but he went along with it because the track team obviously benefited from Cruz’s presence.

“We talked to Dellinger and he said, ‘No problem,’ ” Cruz said with a smile. “Besides, he didn’t have a choice. If he was upset, it was bye-bye.”

By the summer of 1983, at 20, Cruz was considered a world-class 800-meter runner but by no means a favorite. At the World Championships in Helsinki, Finland, Cruz finished third in a race he said he should have won. Accustomed to taking the lead, Cruz went out too fast and faded in the stretch.

“I was surprised,” Cruz said. “I thought I was going to win. A day before the race, I pictured myself winning 100 times. And I pictured myself running in front. I never give myself a chance to picture me losing. But I wasn’t prepared for that hard of a pace. I learned to be more flexible.”

Maybe that loss was the best thing for Cruz, because he came back last year with an insatiable desire to win. He easily won both the NCAA 800 and the 1,500 that spring and then immediately started pointing to the Olympics.

The 800 field, featuring Coe, Ovett and Americans Earl Jones and Johnny Gray, was considered the deepest and strongest of any track event in the Olympics. After breezing to fast times--too fast for his own good, some thought--in the preliminary heats, Cruz had the competition worried.

Said Coe on the eve of the race: “He’s either in supreme physical condition or foolhardy.”

Cruz answered that question as the late afternoon sun beat down on the Coliseum track Aug. 6. For the first 400 meters, Cruz followed the pace of Kenya’s Edwin Koech, his long stride never wavering. As the runners reached the stretch, Cruz seemingly didn’t change his fluid movement, yet he pulled away from the field.

When he hit the tape, Cruz was at least five meters ahead of Coe and Jones, who battled for second. Grabbing a Brazilian flag from a spectator a la Carl Lewis, Cruz proudly waved it on his victory lap. He had become the first Brazilian runner to win a gold medal.

Cruz also had a chance to become the first to win both the 800 and 1,500 since Peter Snell in 1964. But he came down with a cold and decided to drop out of the 1,500 in the semifinals.

That didn’t spoil the 800 victory for either Cruz or the people of Brazil, however. He was a hero. In Sao Paulo, an abandoned baby found on someone’s doorstep was named Joaquim Cruz. The Cruz legend was enhanced during his successful European tour, and the only thing that kept 1984 from being a completely unbelievable year was missing the world record in the 800.

De Oliveira said Cruz is now training more for the 1,500 and mile than the 800. “But, the 800 record is there for us,” de Oliveira added.

It is always us when you talk to De Oliveira about Cruz. They agree that Cruz would not be where he is today had it not been for his domineering coach. But the same can be said for de Oliveira, who has now added Mary Decker Slaney to the growing stable of athletes he coaches.

“Everything I have today, if I had to give it to somebody, I’d give it to Luiz,” Cruz said. “He gave me everything. When I didn’t have vegetables to eat, he brought them to me. He brought me shoes, he looked after me when I grew up. He’s like a father, but those wouldn’t be the right words. More than a father.”

Thanks in equal parts to de Oliveira and his own dedication, Cruz doesn’t have to worry about not having money anymore. He no longer competes for Oregon, although he still attends classes there. Cruz has a lucrative contract with Nike, which reportedly gave each of its gold-medal athletes a $40,000 bonus. It’s estimated he earned more than $100,000 last year. Cruz is one of the top five athletes in appearance fees in the United States. He recently made $18,000 to run in Trinidad.

Much of the money Cruz makes--he smiles and says it isn’t much--supports his mother and sisters and a 5-year-old deaf nephew. Lydia Cruz recently moved the family into a nicer house in Brasilia.

“My mother is happy for me because I’ve accomplished so many things in such a short period of time,” Cruz said. “But she doesn’t know about track, so she doesn’t make a big deal about it. She’s not the type of person to do that, anyway. During the race (Olympic 800), Brazilian TV went to her house to show her the race. After I won, the TV called me in L.A. and asked me to talk to my mother on the phone on TV. I didn’t do it because I didn’t want all those people to hear a private conversation. We talked later.”

Cruz may be far from his family and his home country, but he doesn’t forget.

“I want to help the people in my country, but I don’t know how,” Cruz said. “I don’t have the power. Maybe I can help with words, but I really don’t want to get into politics. The people in power should be the ones to help.”

Cruz threw his hands in the air.

“I care about my family. When I go back to Brazil . . . I’m going to bring my mother back here for a visit. I think she will like it here.”

De Oliveira was preparing to leave for Brazil. Cruz would follow in a week. Even though they were only going to be separated for a short time, Cruz and de Oliveira exchanged emotional goodbys in Portuguese, shook hands and hugged.

Cruz then slipped into his BMW and drove off into the evening drizzle. Brazil must have seemed far away.


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