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'I don't want to be the old guy - I want to be the best'

Nick Atkin
July 11, 2014
An emotional Felix Sanchez cried on the London 2012 podium as he remembered his late grandmother © Getty Images
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It was one of the iconic images of London 2012: Felix Sanchez breaking down in tears on the podium after receiving his 400m hurdles gold medal.

Eight years after his victory in Athens and with exactly the same time of 47.63 secs, an athlete supposedly past his prime shocked the world and could no longer control his emotions during the national anthem of his native Dominican Republic.

"It's interesting because I was one of the greatest in the sport leading up to that and obviously after that I'm more known for what I did on the podium, shedding my tears," Sanchez recalls with a chuckle.

After winning that race on August 6, 2012, Sanchez produced a photograph of his late beloved grandmother Lilian from inside his race bib and knelt on the track to kiss it.

Felix Sanchez paid tribute to his late grandmother after winning the men's 400m hurdles at London 2012 © Getty Images
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Sanchez had received news of her death from another family member on the day of the heats at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Stricken with grief, Sanchez failed to even make the semi-finals.

His moment of redemption is still the defining image of a career littered with gold medals and records. You won't find Sanchez complaining, however. "It's great in that it resonated to more than the athlete," he adds.

"It resonated to people who have lost a grandmother or someone special to them, who have reached a point in their life - whether it be athletic or professional - where they were doubted or they were wondering if they would be able to pull it off or stick with it.

"It's a testament to fortitude and being able to really believe anything is possible. To be that motivation for a lot of people is the most special thing for me."

Indeed, Sanchez just keeps going, despite having achieved almost everything there is to achieve in the sport.

As well as his gold in Athens, he won two world championships and 43 consecutive races from 2001 to 2004; at the age of 34 in London, Sanchez became the oldest man to win the Olympic 400m hurdles title and he is also the only athlete in World Championship history in any sprint or hurdles event to make seven finals in a row.

Dominican Republic's Olympic Stadium is named after him and his old nickname, 'Superman', is tattooed on his arm.

It's not been a bad run. But Sanchez doesn't want to stop there. "My legacy has been consistency and greatness," he adds. "I've had a 15 year career and I've only missed two finals [in Beijing and his first World Championships in Seville]. But my plan is to be the oldest to win a World Championship medal."

Felix Sanchez is aiming for at least one more World Championships after coming fifth in the final in Moscow last year © Getty Images
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He has already shelved plans from two years ago to retire in 2014. At the ripe old age of 36, Sanchez is still competing with the best of them. This weekend he heads to the Sainsbury's Glasgow Grand Prix, after narrowly missing out on the podium in his last three races.

"Knowing that no one in the history of my event has made it this far and competed this long at this level is motivation in itself," says Sanchez.

"To know you're the oldest and all eyes are on you when you line up, that you've got seven years on everyone elseā€¦ It's a challenge in itself against father time and your body, to see how many of the young guys you can actually beat.

"This is what athletics is about - going out there to line up and compete against the other seven guys and see who's better on the day.

"I still love that aspect. I can deal with the strenuous demands of training just because I know when it comes down to June and July, I want to be the best. I don't want to be the best old guy, I want to be the best.

"It's been fun this year, coming into races and having a bad lane and still beating a few guys. I've come fourth three times in a row, so I'm looking forward to breaking into the top three this weekend."

Eventually, there will only be one winner in that battle against father time, but Sanchez is still refusing to downgrade his ambitions.

"This year is all short term, working on a new race plan and trying to perfect that, to see how fast I can go with the training we've put in," he says.

"As you get older injuries are your biggest obstacle. The goal for me is to run 48.5 or faster and stay healthy by the end of the season. So far so good, I cracked 49 [48.91 seconds] last meeting in Paris and I'm obviously looking forward to going a little faster every race I run this year.

"I want to keep the streak going. Just being competitive, not making any mistakes."

Felix Sanchez won the Laureus Comeback of the Year award in 2013 for his triumph in London © Getty Images
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The old adage that with age comes wisdom perfectly applies to Sanchez. "With racing, I have more fun because there are no expectations," he said. "No one has competed this long. No one expects anything from me. They respect me but they don't fear me. That's fun - to be the underdog every time you step on the line is something new.

"When I lose the passion for athletics is when I walk away. As long as I'm able to stay healthy, competitive and they invite me to the races, I'll be here."

Sanchez plans on going to his ninth World Championships in Beijing next year and even has his the defence his Olympic title in Rio - for what, astoundingly, would be his fifth Games - in his sights.

With such great memories of London, too, Sanchez says he is tempted to aim for a 10th World Championships when the competition comes to England's capital in 2017 - even though he would be knocking on 40.

"Ten World Championships and five Olympics," he says with a puff of his cheeks. But would he go just to make up the numbers? "No, absolutely not," he says firmly. "I wouldn't go just to be a participant.

"Obviously the success I had in London, that's probably the only thing that would pull me to a 10th World Championships. That's still far away but that is definitely on the radar. One step at a time but that would be amazing."

Sainsbury's sponsorship of the British Athletics Summer Series reflects its wider commitment to inspiring healthy lifestyles for all. For more information click here

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