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In Competitive Sports, Puerto Ricans Gain A Sense Of Independence

At the Germán Rieckehoff Olympic Village in Salinas, Puerto Rico young athletes train in this swimming pool.
Greg Allen

This week, Puerto Ricans marked a century since they were granted U.S. citizenship by Congress, though it's a limited form of citizenship. Puerto Ricans on the island can't vote for the U.S. president in the general election and they lack representation in Congress. There is, however, one avenue where Puerto Ricans enjoy status as an "independent entity" — that's at the Olympics, where Puerto Ricans compete under their own flag.

Puerto Rico is a member of the International Olympic Committee. The island has an expansive Olympic Village in Salinas — about an hour south of San Juan — where young athletes train.

On this sunny and breezy afternoon, swimmers jump into the Olympic-size swimming pool to warm up for a two and a half hour training session.

This sports facility has a boarding school for grades seven through 12. Young people from around the island try out for athletic scholarships that could lead to a spot on Puerto Rico's Olympic team, but there are no guarantees.

"Puerto Ricans value the sovereignty that we have in terms of sport. It's something that's part of our national identity."

Seventeen-year-old Paola Santiago, who started swimming at the age of 5, says, "It's an honor to represent Puerto Rico, our country in the sports," even if it means hard work and sacrifice.

Like Santiago, most Puerto Ricans refer to the island as " pais" or country even though it is not — it's a U.S. territory. The thought of trying out for the U.S. swim team has never crossed her mind.

A passion for competitive sports

"I wouldn't feel that happy," she says, "because I feel like I feel more comfortable being here and represent Puerto Rico, I don't live there, I don't do anything there."

"There," meaning the mainland U.S.

Santiago smiles easily, even when she's on her second daily two-hour-long training session. She's preparing to try out for the Puerto Rican national swim team this April.

She says she wants to make her island proud, just like tennis player Monica Puig did last summer in Rio. Puig, an underdog from the outset, defeated World No. 2 seed Angelique Kerber of Germany to cop gold medal in the women's singles final.

That winning match sent Puerto Ricans into a collective explosion of pride — Puig's gold medal was the first ever in Puerto Rico's Olympic history.

Almost everyone on the island feels passionate about competitive sports — including politicians of all parties.

Swim coach Fernando Delgado at the Germán Rieckehoff Olympic Village in Salinas, Puerto Rico.
Marisa Penaloza / NPR
Swim coach Fernando Delgado at the Germán Rieckehoff Olympic Village in Salinas, Puerto Rico.

"Puerto Ricans value the sovereignty that we have in terms of sport," says Manuel Natal, a member of Puerto Rico's House of Representatives. "It's something that's part of our national identity."

The 51st state

Governor Ricardo Rosello, whose party is pushing for Puerto Rico to become the 51 st state in the U.S., is especially proud of tennis player Monica Puig's gold medal.

"You know, it's a great pride to us," he says. "I feel just as proud, being from Puerto Rico ... just as I'm sure Texans feel pride when somebody from Texas wins a gold medal."

Texans don't compete as a state, however, but as part of the U.S. national team.

At the Olympic Village in Salinas, swim coach Fernando Delgado runs the stopwatch on the pool deck, timing each of his 23 swimmers with precision.

Delgado has been coaching here for 31 years and he's marched alongside Puerto Rican athletes in several Olympic ceremonies around the world.

"I can't explain you the emotion that we feel, the feelings about that moment," he says in reference to parading at Olympic ceremonies. At a loss for words, he points to the goosebumps on his large tanned arms as a way to explain his emotions.

Delgado's overwhelming pride in Puerto Rico's athletic independence is shared by many on the island.

"This is the only arena where we feel like an independent nation," he says.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.
Marisa Peñaloza is a senior producer on NPR's National Desk. Peñaloza's productions are among the signature pieces heard on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as weekend shows. Her work has covered a wide array of topics — from breaking news to feature stories, as well as investigative reports.
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