Eddy Alvarez’s Pursuit of Summer and Winter Gold Medals

Eddy Alvarez’s Pursuit of Summer and Winter Gold Medals
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Eddy Alvarez’s Pursuit of Summer and Winter Gold Medals

Eddy Alvarez’s Pursuit of Summer and Winter Gold Medals

YOKOHAMA, Japan – As the competition began in Tokyo, only 142 athletes in Games history had competed in the Summer and Winter Olympics. This group is small for obvious reasons. It’s really hard to do.

But when he dug into the batter’s box on Friday night at Yokohama Baseball Stadium, Team USA member Eddy Alvarez joined the club.

At the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, Alvarez, a Miami native who used to perform roller skate tricks in South Beach as a youngster, won a silver medal in the US 5,000-meter short track relay team. speed skating. At the Tokyo Olympics, where baseball returned to the Summer Games for the first time since 2008, he was the US team’s starting second baseman.

The similarities between sports? “Turn left,” Alvarez, 31, said recently with a chuckle. “That’s it.”

Alvarez, however, is trying to achieve an even higher degree of difficulty: to become only the sixth person to win a medal at the Summer and Winter Games.

The only Americans to have succeeded are Eddie Eagan (gold in boxing in 1920 and gold in bobsleigh in 1932) and Lauryn Williams (silver on the track in 2004, gold on the track in 2012 and silver in bobsleigh in 2014). And with the United States baseball team considered Japan’s top, top-ranked challenger, Alvarez has a good chance of joining them.

“I’m not saying I’m the greatest athlete to ever walk on this planet, but being part of this elite group is something special,” he said, adding: “just to be this small percentage of this small percentage is crazy.”

Watch Alvarez play now and it’s clear how he managed to get away with it. On a court with other top athletes, he’s faster and more graceful, darting around the infield or bases with little wasted movement. But this athleticism has also been accompanied by a lifelong tussle between skating and baseball.

At 4, he got his first pair of skates for Christmas. By age 6, he had picked up stuff from older skaters at the beach and caught the attention of enough people that a local skate store asked him to sponsor him. At age 11, he won the national youth titles in inline, long and short track speed skating that same year and earned Eddy’s nickname “The Jet”.

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“He’s always been so coordinated,” said his father, Walter Alvarez. “It was like a beautiful thing to see him on the ice.”

Baseball, however, was to be Alvarez’s primary sport, as was his older brother Nick, 44, who spent seven years in the minor leagues of the Los Angeles Dodgers organization. And the sport, of course, is immensely popular in Cuba, where its parents are from, and among South Florida Latinos.

But Alvarez continued to demonstrate such a skill on his feet that he switched to in-line speed skating and then to ice. At an inline skating center in Miami, he met a pioneer who inspired him and his family to continue: Jennifer Rodriguez, the first Cuban-American to compete in the Winter Games (the Olympic Games in Nagano in 1996) and the first to win a medal. (two bronzes in long track speed skating at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games).

“He was really small, but he was super fast,” Rodriguez, 45, said of training with a young Alvarez. “To be honest, he was this irritating little guy. I couldn’t let it go. He was right behind us.

After juggling the two disciplines for so long, taking naps and homework while his parents took him to the next practice or competition, Alvarez decided while attending Christopher Columbus High in Miami, a baseball powerhouse, that it was time to take one seriously. He felt he had exceeded all expectations as a skater, so he chose what he called his true passion: baseball.

Alvarez said he never intended to continue bouncing between sports, but it kept happening. When a small college was the only one to offer him a full sports scholarship because he was undersized, he refocused on his Olympic dream.

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It went back and forth. After he failed to qualify for the 2010 Games, he gave baseball another chance. He was on the Salt Lake City Community College baseball team as a backup in 2011 and overcame double knee surgery to earn a berth at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.

“Not a day goes by that I don’t remember my experience at the Olympics,” he said, including the stumbles.

In three individual races, Alvarez slipped, was knocked down or was disqualified. But his 5,000-meter relay team made it to the final. The United States lost to Russia by less than three tenths of a second.

Losing to athletes from a federation that has since participated in the most elaborate doping program in sports history still worries Alvarez. Three members of the Russian squad that beat Alvarez’s squad – including Viktor Ahn, the most decorated Olympic short track speed skater in history – were among dozens of athletes excluded from the 2018 Games.

“We kind of feel cheated,” Alvarez said, calling the Tokyo Olympics a “real second chance”.

Regardless of the outcome of those Winter Games, Alvarez said he had already made up his mind beforehand: he was going back to baseball – again – even though many, including his father, were hoping he would return. in four years for a blow. to a gold medal in speed skating.

“If I wanted to be a professional baseball player at some point I knew I would have to take the jump as soon as possible because unfortunately age is a huge factor,” said Alvarez, whose backup plan was skating.

Alvarez began to overhaul his 5-foot-9, 150-pound frame of a physique beneficial for speed skating, with a muscular lower body and lean arms, to one with upper body strength and mass for swinging a bat forcefully.

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Teams took little interest in an athletic but rusty 24-year-old. But after watching Alvarez train, the Chicago White Sox called – the first club to do so – and he immediately signed a minor league contract, just four months after his last run in Sochi.

After a promising start, Alvarez struggled. Progressing into his 30s and still in the minor leagues, he was traded to his hometown of the Marlins in 2019. He had his best season yet.

And in 2020, after a coronavirus outbreak weakened the Marlins’ roster, Alvarez made his major league debut. Even though he missed and reached .189 in 12 games, he believes his seasoning helped him land an invitation from the U.S. national team to qualifying in June.

With Alvarez’s speed and batting, the United States secured a berth in the Olympics. He was chosen, along with WNBA star Sue Bird, to serve as the flag bearer for the Americans at the opening ceremony. On the pitch, he remained the spark plug for the team.

Looking from afar, Rodriguez marveled at how the little Miami skater who became a silver medalist reached the highest levels of another sport, so different and dependent on hand-eye coordination.

“Technique in baseball is different from night and day skating, which requires a lot of strength and endurance,” she said. “You put me on the baseball field and it doesn’t work. I can’t play tennis. I can’t do anything hand-eye co-ordinated. It looks awful.

The last time Alvarez was at the Olympics, he said he was so overwhelmed trying to soak up the experience that it was sometimes difficult to concentrate. Seven years later, Alvarez said he felt more comfortable, a change he hopes will help him avoid having to hear another country’s national anthem during the the presentation of gold medals.

“It feels like a journey of redemption for me,” he said.

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