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Spinning Straw Into Gold
Kenny Moore
December 24, 1984
Raised in poverty, Joaquim Cruz of Brazil became a prince in his sport after his impressive Olympic 800
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December 24, 1984

Spinning Straw Into Gold

Raised in poverty, Joaquim Cruz of Brazil became a prince in his sport after his impressive Olympic 800

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De Oliveira's confidence was shaken. "Suddenly it hit me that what I knew about coaching wasn't enough," he says. "He needed more than that. I had to improve my knowledge about middle distance running."

But the foundation on which he built was there from the beginning: "An athlete needs a program. Not just the right exercises after school, but a coordinated way of life that has rest and diet and study and family and friends all in proportion, as well as fundamental values like mutual respect and keeping your promises."

"Luiz didn't say to me, 'You have talent,' " says Joaquim. "Maybe he knew, but he only told me I could get a lot of things running. I could get out of the country and learn English. I really wanted to see the world. But I was very shy."

So shy that Joaquim himself knew he could never get where he wanted to go by himself. "I believed in anybody who wanted to treat me well, who wanted the best for me," he says. "I believed in Luiz because he bought me shoes and food and vitamins. He cared about me."

De Oliveira was bound as strongly by his prescribed way of life as were his charges. "My athletes and I agree. We are a team. We make commitments to each other, coach to athlete, and the other way around, too," he says.

Cruz and de Oliveira formed a remarkable symbiosis. De Oliveira prepared him in stages, laying a base of general fitness and strength and flexibility, then adding intensity and speed, to peak for a single season a year. "I complained a lot," says Cruz, "but looking back, comparing it with what we do today, it was easy. And we got good results, even though I was just beginning and didn't know much. For one thing, my legs used to really hurt after races, until I discovered the victory lap."

When he was 17, in 1980, Joaquim ran 800 meters in 1:47.85, 1,500 in 3:47.3. He watched Coe win the Olympic 1,500 on TV and vowed to be like him.

"My father wasn't well, and I asked him to stop working and take my mother to the north and rest," he says. "I was getting some money from the government and the club. My sisters and I could have survived. But he didn't listen."

Joaquim Sr. did take the chance to see his son run. "He liked it," says Cruz. "He did something amazing, something that he had never done before. He invited me for ice cream."

Cruz savors every memory of his father, who died in 1981 of a heart attack at the age of 50. "He was shorter than I am, shorter even than Luiz, who is 5'8". But he was strong. He didn't say much after watching me run. Only that when he was young, he ran on the farm, chasing the cows."

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