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A lifetime high

Lanaro, who lives in U.S., attains goal of competing for Mexico

July 28, 2007|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

RIO DE JANEIRO — As a budding swimming champion growing up in the San Gabriel Valley, Giovanni Lanaro remembers going to meets where the first event on the schedule was the playing of the national anthem.

"When I would hear it, it was like, 'Wow, it's amazing,' " he said. "Even when I hear it to this day, I still have the same feeling."

Lanaro has since left swimming and is now a pole vaulter -- the seventh-best in the world, in fact. But if he climbs to the top of the medal platform today during the final full day of competition of the Pan American Games, he won't be hearing "The Star-Spangled Banner." Instead they'll be playing the Mexican national anthem.

"Ever since I was young I wanted to compete for Mexico," said Lanaro, who was born in Los Angeles to an American father and a Mexican mother, qualifying him for dual citizenship. "My whole family, everyone's Mexican. We live in the U.S., but the culture is a Mexican culture and that's what I grew up around.

"So that's what I've always wanted to do, compete for Mexico."

He's not the only one. No fewer than nine athletes named to the Mexican Pan Am team -- including East L.A. boxer Anthony Mosquera and former UCLA middle-distance runner Martell Munguia -- were born in the U.S. but choose to compete for their parents' homeland instead.

"I live in the States. Everything I do is in the U.S.," said Lanaro, the Mexican champion and national record-holder with a best of 19 feet 1 inch. "[But] competing for Mexico, it's a big deal for my mom. And my dad too. For them, it's important for me to represent Mexico."

And there can be other advantages to representing Mexico. Mosquera, for example, was fighting for USA Boxing a year ago, but his path to the welterweight spot on the U.S. national and Olympic teams was blocked by 19-year-old Demetrius Andrade. Boxing for Mexico, however, he was not only invited to the pre-Pan Am tournament in Argentina last spring, but he also won there. And though that qualified him for the Mexican team here, he did not compete, missing a chance at a bout with Andrade.

That's not as much a concern for Lanaro, who has the fourth-best mark in the Americas this year -- albeit behind three U.S. vaulters.

"I think I could have made that team," he said of the U.S. squad for next month's world championships. "But that's not what I want."

Lanaro's desires were not popular with his new teammates when he first competed in Mexico five years ago.

Seen as a Mexican in the U.S., he and fellow pole vaulter Robinson Pratt Hinton -- the son of a Mormon missionary who also has dual citizenship -- were derided as carpetbaggers in Mexico.

"Both of us going in, you could kind of see the vaulters didn't want us there," said Lanaro, 25. "It's very tough. You come in and you are an American. The reality is I was born in the U.S., raised in the U.S. Everybody looking at me can say, 'Oh, this guy doesn't know what it's like to live in Mexico.'

"And the reality of it is, I don't. I never lived that life. But I want to compete for Mexico. I feel proud to compete for Mexico."

In and around La Puente, the immigrant-heavy east San Gabriel Valley community where he still lives with his parents, he has gotten a different reaction.

In Mexico, "I've never heard a thank you, or 'Oh, that's great' or anything like that. More than anything it's people that are in the U.S.," said Lanaro, a three-time All-American at Cal State Fullerton. "Mexicans ... in the U.S. are the ones that say something like that."

The next thing Lanaro and his neighbors would like to hear is the Mexican anthem -- preferably today after the pole vault. Although Lanaro is competing in his second Pan Am Games, has competed in one Olympic Games and has a berth reserved in the next one, and has earned a gold medal in the Central American and Caribbean Championships, he hasn't won at a meet that plays national anthems during the medal ceremony.

"Ever since I was young I would hear it, but it wasn't the same because I grew up in the U.S.," Lanaro said. "But ... more and more time that goes by and more and more that I compete for Mexico, the more and more I feel for it. If I were to win a Pan Am gold and I hear that national anthem, I'm going to feel something special."

--

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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