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Latinx Heritage Month

On this day in Latinx history: Olympian Jefferson Pérez retires

Race walker is the only person to win medals representing Ecuador

Ecuador’s Jefferson Pérez, Russia’s Ilya Markov and Mexico’s Bernardo Segura struggled to find separation from one another as they neared the finish of the 20-kilometer walk at the 1996 Olympics. Then Pérez began to take advantage of having the youngest legs of the trio and powered himself into the lead.

As a crowd of 85,000 waited to see who would be the first to appear at Olympic Stadium, Pérez made a dramatic solo entrance and finished in 1 hour, 20 minutes and 7 seconds to become the youngest gold medalist in the 20-km event at 22. His victory also secured Ecuador’s first Olympic medal.

In a career that spanned two decades, Pérez won a gold and silver medal across five Olympics (1992-2008), remains the lone race walker to win gold in three consecutive World Championships (2003, 2005, 2007) and owns both of Ecuador’s Olympic medals from his 20-km events in 1996 and 2008.

Jefferson Perez of Ecuador collapses after crossing the line to win gold in the mens 20km walk during the 1996 Centennial Games at the Olympic Stadium in Atlantia, Georgia.

AP Photo

On Sept. 29, 2008, Pérez retired from the sport. Nine days earlier, at a news conference in Murcia, Spain, for the 2008 IAAF Race Walking Challenge final, Pérez revealed that it would be his final race walking competition. He finished third.

“My heart wants to go on, but my body can’t take another four years of work,” he said at the news conference. “But we have an expression in my country: If you’re famous, you can go to bed. I’m not like that. This is the start of my sports work with kids and other important projects.”

After the 2008 Games, Pérez kept a promise to do a pilgrimage across Ecuador. The 459-km walk began at the cathedral in the capital city of Quito, headed toward the mountains, where he reached altitudes of 4,800 meters, and finished in his native Cuenca.

It was in this small town that Pérez had met local coach Luis Chocho, who trained him in race walking as a young boy. When Pérez first started competing, he race-walked in 5-km events until he eventually worked his way up to longer distances.

At his first competition outside of South America, he took home the bronze medal in the 10-km walk at the World Junior Championships in 1990. Two years later, he won gold in the same competition in Seoul, South Korea. That was his first first-place finish at a competition outside of South America.

Four years later, Pérez went on to win gold at the Olympics, and at the following two Olympics, in Sydney and Athens, he narrowly missed the bronze medal, finishing fourth in both Games.

Then came the 2008 Beijing Games, where he took home the silver medal after crossing the finish line 14 seconds after Russia’s Valeriy Borchin. In January 2015, Reuters reported that the Russian Anti-Doping Agency suspended Borchin for eight years for “abnormal blood levels” in his “biological passport,” which has prompted a call for Borchin to have his Olympic gold medal stripped and given to Pérez.

Rhiannon Walker is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a drinker of Sassy Cow Creamery chocolate milk, an owner of an extensive Disney VHS collection, and she might have a heart attack if Frank Ocean doesn't drop his second album.