July 27, 2009
By Brentton Walker & Jeremy Hawkes
To many people, sports seem to be a means of entertainment by exhibiting the skill that an athlete possesses. The athletes come on to their stage, give it their all, and then go back to living their lives.
Although athletes train very hard to be successful, no one really knows how hard it can be to be a student-athlete at the collegiate level in the United States - specifically here at the University of Arizona - let alone as an international student.
UA long jumper Luis Rivera-Morales exemplifies just how difficult that journey can be. During the 2009 track and field season, Rivera-Morales won both the long and triple jump conference crowns indoors and outdoors and captured the regional title in the long jump outdoors.
He earned All-American accolades at the 2009 NCAA Outdoor Championships in Fayetteville, Ark., and will go down as one of the most decorated jumpers in UA history. Yet, four years ago there was a chance Rivera-Morales would not even make it at the Division I level.
At that time Rivera-Morales came to Arizona from his native Agua Prieta, Mexico. Having grown up as a high school track athlete with few amenities, the opportunity to come compete on the American collegiate level was something the senior could only dream of. So when he took a trip to visit UA Track and Field Director Fred Harvey following his senior year to discuss his desire to join the program, it seemed that dream would inevitably become a reality.
Rivera-Morales was a strong high school athlete with marks that would interest some of the best programs across the country, yet he was not highly recruited due to the lack exposure coming out of Mexico. For him to fall right in the UA program's lap was a gift, but there was a catch. As a student whose primary language was Spanish, he was required to take the Test for English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) in order to gain admittance to the university. He failed the test by three points.
For many athletes with aspirations to be one of the top jumpers on American soil, this instance very well could have been the end of the road for Rivera-Morales. But while the score was not good enough to get him into the university, it was good enough to get him into a community college.
He was accepted to Central Arizona College, where he dominated the junior college long jumping scene by winning the long and triple jump national championships. Other than taking classes and working hard to improve athletically, he struggled to learn English in just two years time.
'When I went to (Central Arizona), it was an everyday task to learn English by doing various activities such as talking in English, and watching TV in English,' said Rivera-Morales. 'Some of the reality shows on television helped me to understand and apply some words that are used on a daily basis.'
He believes track helped play a large role at his success at learning English as well. Communication was an issue from the instant of his arrival on campus and so the learning curve was a steep one if he hoped to take and learn what his coaches were trying to teach him.
'At the beginning (at CAC), we used more body language to communicate with each other to learn language,' said the 6-foot senior. 'Track and field was an everyday part of my life, so communicating with the coaches was essential.'
The hard work paid off and Rivera-Morales graduated with his associate's degree and passed his TOEFL the second time around to earn his acceptance to on the university level. His success at the junior college level made him a prized recruit nationally, but he always knew that the UA was the only place for him. He enrolled immediately after his graduation from CAC,
Although his efforts to learn English were difficult, quitting was never on the champion's mind. Luis is well on his way to accomplishing his task to get his degree in industrial engineering, by maintaining better than a 3.0 GPA in his time at UA and garnering all-Academic honors from the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation earlier this season.
'The way I see it, the door is going to be closed once you close it' said Rivera-Morales. 'My mind was focused on getting a degree in the U.S.'
On top of his commendable performance in the classroom, Rivera-Morales established himself as a leader both on an off the track and took huge strides towards maturing as an athlete this season.
'He made a conscious decision to become a better athlete this year,' said UA head coach Fred Harvey. 'His work ethic is tremendous and that helped some of the younger jumpers and even sprinters see his focus and consistency.
And Rivera-Morales' desire to see his teammates succeed is what really makes him stand above many in a world where athletes seem consistently more worried about themselves and their well-being than others. Rivera-Morales can often be found asking other athletes on the team how they did after a meet in case he missed their performances and is often the first one there to congratulate them or give them encouraging words.
There have been many life lessons for Luis on this journey. One important one has been the willingness of his teammates to help. When things get hard for Luis, he always knows that his teammates are there for him.
'I learned to never give up on your dreams,' he said. 'I also learned that people, although from another culture, are still willing to lend a helping hand.'
The fact that Rivera-Morales has had to make so many transitions in a new culture may be a part of what inspires him to try to be all that he can be. The support he has seen from people in a new country both on and off the track has helped make the transition that much easier which in turn helps him to accept what others try to teach him and make him a better athlete and student.
Harvey expects to see some impressive things from the Mexican native in his indoor stint this season, saying that the only reason for bringing an athlete back for that final indoor year is because you expect him to do something big for the team.
Even bigger than his performance as a Wildcat next season that will be Rivera-Morales' quest over the next three years to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Games in London as a member of the Mexican National Team.
'He made huge strides in understand what it takes from a mental standpoint to be at a championship level this year after competing at the NCAA Championships,' Harvey said. 'I think his chances of making the Mexican National Team are very high.
'Having talent is one thing but the talent level is extremely close at that level,' Harvey added. 'Becoming a competitive national athlete is where the learning curve steepens. I think now that he knows all the sacrifices he needs to make to not only make the Olympic Games, but be successful at them.'
And therein lies the crazy nature of the human spirit. Four years ago, many athletes would have given up hope of chasing their dreams when Rivera-Morales saw those test results. Now, in just four years time, the once non-English speaking athlete from Agua Prieta, Mexico, has stared down that adversary and has set himself up to become the next in a long line of UA athletes who have made that jump to the highest stage - a chance for Olympic glory.