Rio 2016: USA's Latino medal winners showcased the best of America

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In two dramatic weeks, the backdrops of Corcovado and Copacabana served as visual soundtracks to the 31st Olympiad. Rio de Janeiro, the sixth most populated city in the Americas, played host to 207 nations, and welcomed athletic competitors from the first refugee team, South Sudan, and Kosovo.

The United States of America, a nation built by immigrants, left the Games as a melting pot of multicultural glory. Every shade of America’s skin was present and carrying the same message: don’t ever give up, because the fight is not done.

So it’s only fair to commemorate the Latino athletes who stood on that podium, wearing red, white and blue while inspiring millions of viewers. We honor their achievements because they reflect our own sacrifices and the ones made by our parents and grandparents who risked so much to be here.

Gracias to Maya Dirado. Her humble approach to competition makes her even more likeable – if that was even possible. When she stood on that podium after winning the 200m backstroke and out-touched the heavy favorite, Katinka Hosszu of Hungary, the tears of joy were a brief reminder of the hours of work that no one else sees. After the race, Dirado – whose father is from Argentina – couldn’t contain her emotions. “I can’t believe that just happened,” she said in an interview with Michele Tafoya, still in disbelief. Four medals, including two golds, signified that in Rio she was a force to be reckoned with.

Dirado’s modest demeanor could perhaps equal Nico Hernandez, the boxer from Wichita, Kansas. The 20-year-old Mexican American light flyweight was the first male US fighter to claim a medal of any kind at the Games since 2008. After losing the semi-final bout and earning a bronze, Hernandez remained respectful and never complained, admitting his opponent was the better competitor.

“I know, win or lose, my supporters back home are proud of me either way,” he said after the fight. He owes so much to his father, a truck mechanic who introduced him to the sport when he was nine. “He’s been pushing me since I was little and helping me chase my dreams,” he told NBC before the Games began. No one gave him a shot in the first bout against Italy’s Manuel Cappai, and now he’s an Olympic bronze medallist.


Nico Miguel Hernandez, left, fights Uzbekistan’s Hasanboy Dusmatov in the semi-final. Photograph: Frank Franklin II/AP

Speaking of opportunity, Danell Leyva, the Cuban American gymnast most definitely took his. After replacing John Orozco due to an ACL injury, Leyva posted a video on Instagram expressing his gratitude for the selection and his condolences for the injured athlete. “I am incredibly honored to be chosen for the team but I’m also devastated for John,” he said about his friend and team-mate. “This wasn’t the way I wanted to make the team.” Leyva, however, did not take this opportunity for granted and delivered in great fashion by winning two silver medals in parallel and horizontal bars.

How about the wonderfully colorful Laurie Hernandez, the youngest member of the Final Five? After helping Team USA win gold in the team all-around, the 16-year-old became the first and only Latina ever to win a medal on balance beam. The New Jersey native is an inspiration to millions of Hispanic girls across the country who look up to her and can’t help but smile when they see the mesmerizing floor routine. I had the pleasure of spending time with Hernandez before she exploded on to the scene and can confirm she is a smart, beautiful and personable young athlete. The Sky is the limit for the Boricua. Let’s hope she keeps shining.

The spotlight was definitely shining on America’s men and women basketball teams this past weekend, and Team USA did everything and more to in order to achieve gold. It’s a sweeter victory when you realize that both squads were led by New York Knicks star and all-time Olympic scorer Carmelo Anthony (whose father was the Puerto Rican social activist Carmelo Iriarte) and three-point queen Diana Taurasi. The Argentinian American showed a tremendous amount of grit as the greatest women’s player ever scored 17 points in the final against Spain, propelling her team to a dominating win and making the case for the women’s US team as the greatest Olympic squad ever. Between them, they have eight Olympic medals.

Since we are discussing leadership, let’s celebrate Maggie Steffens, captain and Olympics MVP of the women’s water polo team, who achieved gold for a second consecutive time. She is the daughter of Carlos Steffens, who played for Puerto Rico’s men’s water polo team in three Pan-American Games and was a three-time all-American for UC Berkeley. The 23-year-old – alongside Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel – is a product of Stanford University’s powerful athletic program.

— Maggie Steffens (@maggiesteffens)
August 22, 2016

Boricua!!! Amazing Games @lzhernandez02 !!! Representing America and Puerto Rico proud! #ClosingCeremony pic.twitter.com/1yMxI41sRB

Thank you to weightlifter Sarah Robles. As a Mexican American, she understands how important it is to represent one’s heritage and become a voice for the community. “As an Olympic athlete, I represent all Americans,” she said in an interview with EFE last month. “But representing Latinos and Latinas is a great honor.” Robles won a weightlifting medal for America for the first time since 2000.

The meaning of these achievements may seem trivial to some, but to many they serve as sources of inspiration as a large number of young Latinos see these athletes as role models and valid examples of what can happen when you apply the values of hard work and dedication.

You can’t get more American than that.

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