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Coach Runs Tight Ship and Inspires His Crew

At 14, Mario Rivera made a life-changing decision after his father took him to the vegetable fields of the Coachella Valley to see what he and other migrant workers did for a living.

“I decided I couldn’t live like that,” Rivera said. “It opened my eyes. My father said, ‘If you don’t go to school, this is exactly what you’re going to be doing the rest of your life.’ ”

Rivera became an honors student and track athlete at Sun Valley Poly High, graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Cal State Northridge, earned a master’s in education and became a biology teacher and cross-country coach at his alma mater.

He’s 28, a newly sworn U.S. citizen, married with an 8-month-old son, owns a house and serves as an inspiring example of what can be accomplished through education and hard work.

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“If I can do it, you can do it,” he tells his cross-country runners. “I feel the American dream exists, but it’s not easy. You have to fight for it.”

Rivera came from Mexico in 1988, walking some 10 miles across the border near Tijuana with his father, mother, brother and sister.

“I was hungry for an opportunity,” he said.

He went through junior high speaking little English. He took English classes in high school and became a distance runner. He took more English classes in college and worked at Magic Mountain, making funnel cakes.

When he received his teaching credential, there was no doubt where he’d end up.

“I made a promise to myself to give back to my community what they had offered me as a young man,” he said.

In 2000, he started coaching cross-country at Poly. Then he became track coach and girls’ soccer coach. And what an effect he has had. The boys’ and girls’ cross-country teams won championships in the Sunset Six League last week, and at Wednesday’s City Section preliminaries, each team qualified for next week’s City finals.

But it’s his vision and personal touch that help change the lives of his students.

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“He’s like a father figure, a big brother to all the kids,” Athletic Director Kim McEwen said. “They really listen to him. He runs with them. They respect his opinion.”

One of Rivera’s biology students, Sergio Arriaga, was a chubby, 6-foot-4, 255-pound sophomore who didn’t play sports. “I was loafing around,” Arriaga said.

He went out for cross-country this year and has lost 40 pounds. He says he feels better, looks better and swears by Rivera’s teachings.

Then there’s junior Bryaan Mendoza, who finished third in the Sunset Six League final. Mendoza’s parents were killed in an automobile accident two months before he entered Poly as a freshman. He was sent to live in foster homes.

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A counselor introduced Mendoza to Rivera, who persuaded him to try cross-country.

“He told me one day he wanted to die,” Rivera said. “All I could tell him was, ‘You have to continue your life. Your parents are looking at you and if you want them to rest in peace, you have to give 110%.’ ”

Said Mendoza: “I was really hurting, so I decided to try it. I see him as another parent for me. Sometimes he’s hard, but I know he does it because he wants the best for us.”

Mendoza said cross-country allowed him to relax and relieve the pain he still endures. “I’m alone,” he said. “It’s just me. I have to make it on my own. I lost my parents. It was one of the hardest pains, and I think I can handle any pain in running. I just run and run.”

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Mendoza can watch, listen and learn from Rivera, who uses his own story to influence others.

“It’s a lot of work,” Rivera said. “You feel tired, but you feel proud. I want to tell students, ‘I was sitting on the chair you are, and it’s possible to graduate.’ ”

Every year, Rivera tries to recruit Poly athletes for cross-country and track. He has one simple requirement.

“All I need from you is effort,” he tells them.

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That’s his gospel, and he’s spreading it like a preacher at a pulpit.

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Eric Sondheimer can be reached at eric.sondheimer@latimes.com.


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