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Burning Up the Track in Norway : South Gate's Sanchez Will Run a Leg of Olympic Torch Relay

January 23, 1994|KIRBY LEE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If a classmate hadn't urged Humberto Sanchez to try out for the South Gate High School cross-country team last fall, the 18-year-old senior might be watching next month's Winter Olympics on TV.

Instead, he's going to be part of the Olympic Torch Relay in Norway.

Sanchez ran his first cross-country race in September. In November, he finished second in the City Section finals. And Feb. 5 he will run a 500-meter leg of the relay in Oslo.

"I am excited, but I am a little nervous because I have never been on a plane," Sanchez said.

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Sanchez is one of five U.S. participants chosen by the International Torch Bearers program, which, for the first time in the Winter Games, will include runners from outside the host country.

City girls' cross-country champion Genevieve DeBose of Hamilton High, Jason Murphy and Linda Lisska of Atlanta, and Tim Willis, a blind runner, were the other U.S. selections. (Sanchez and DeBose were chosen after their performances at the City Section finals; the boys champion was unable to make the trip.) In all, 30 participants from 13 countries were chosen by the Coca-Cola sponsored program.

The 7,000-person relay started Nov. 27 in Morgedal, the site where the flame for the 1952 Oslo Winter Olympics was kindled, and will end 5,000 miles later in Lillehammer with the Feb. 12 opening ceremonies.

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The occasion will mark Sanchez's first exposure to sub-freezing weather. "The State meet in Fresno was the coldest place I've been and its supposed to be minus 7 degrees in Norway, so I don't know what to expect," he said. "I am just grateful for the opportunity to go."

His mother, Maria, will accompany him on the four-day trip with a newly-purchased video camera. But tracking Sanchez's meteoric rise in cross-country was so quick, it would be difficult for anyone to follow.

In the beginning, Sanchez's goal was to just make the varsity squad.

"I figured I'd be fourth or fifth man on my team," he said. "I was the first man in my first race and I kept getting faster and faster and picking up the pace."

Sanchez won the Southeastern Conference title to help South Gate to the team title and also went on to place 11th in the State Division I final in Fresno--the highest finish by a South Gate runner.

His performance in Fresno triggered scholarship interest from several colleges, including Cal State L.A. and UC Davis. This spring he plans to compete in his first season of high school track, concentrating on the 1,600 and 3,200 meters.

"He kept getting better and better," said Coach Daniel Zepeda. "He is an extraordinary talent and he'll continue to improve in college. It's a shame he didn't run for four years in high school because he could still be a lot better."

As an eighth-grader, Sanchez set the mile record of 4 minutes 58 seconds at South Gate High Junior High but dropped out of running to play basketball the next year. "One of my dreams was to play high school basketball," he said. "I guess I fell in love with the camaraderie instead of running and the me-against-you."

This season, Sanchez, a guard, was elevated to the Rams' varsity basketball team. He'll miss two games to make the trip to Norway.

"I'm a lot better at running, but I've been playing basketball for so long that I wanted to continue," Sanchez said. "I still want to go back to running in college and accomplish something."

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