The dream is there for the taking.
After years of chasing it, Miami-Dade’s own Eddy Alvarez may finally catch an elusive spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
The 23-year-old from Christopher Columbus High School will compete in the short track speedskating trials this weekend with the hopes of qualifying for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi in February.
“I want it bad,” Alvarez admits. “I’m willing to do whatever it takes. I dream about it. I wake up and it’s one of the first things I think of.”
Alvarez gets his chance Saturday on home ice. The Cuban-American will skate in the men’s 500 meters on the Utah Olympic Oval in Kearns. That’s the same track that the former Miami resident trains on.
“This was a dream, a goal of mine since I was a kid. I want to stand on that podium. I want to represent my country and my background, my family, my parents, so it’s a lot more than just making the team,” he says. “But it’s a step at a time. I can’t think too far ahead, because the first goal is to get on the team.”
The journey from the Gables to Kearns hasn’t been an easy one. Alvarez quit more than once and surgery nearly derailed the dream altogether.
In March 2012, after two years away from the sport, Alvarez had surgery to repair torn patellar tendons in both knees. The former inline skater was forced to go the surgical route after exhausting every other avenue including five platelet-rich plasma injections.
“It was a chronic pain. It was bad. There were days I would cry myself to sleep. We tried everything but I didn’t have time to waste. The doctor said you might not be able to skate ever again, but it was a chance I was willing to take.”
So Alvarez had both knees repaired at the same time. He was immobile for four weeks.
“That was a tough time,” Alvarez recalls. “One of my lowest. My all-time low. I was ready to quit. I was bedridden. I couldn’t walk.”
But he didn’t quit thanks largely to his dad who kept up his spirits, reminding him of the Olympic dream that he spent 15 years working toward.
“Oh man. My dad – that is a Cuban man,” he says.
Alvarez also found a silver lining while stuck in his bed.
“I’m really good at the guitar now,” he chuckles.
“It’s incredible what you’re willing to do to accomplish your goals. I don’t want to regret anything in life. I was willing to put in the work.”
So, he got back on skates five months later, returning to the ice and the sport that has captured his imagination since he was 7 years old. He was competing internationally just four weeks later.
In September 2013, Alvarez earned a bronze medal in the 500 during a World Cup stop in Shanghai and was part of the gold-medal winning relay team.
“Right now, it’s still a building process to my goal. I didn’t expect to win any medals in Asia, so it’s good,” he says. “A very, very good place. It’s just a matter of peaking at the right time.”
A little bit of luck doesn’t hurt either, especially in a sport that is so unpredictable.
“Short track is NASCAR on ice,” Alvarez explains. “Except there is a lot more bumping and pushing involved. Anything can happen.”
Crashes are common considering it’s the fastest human-powered sport and it’s performed on ice and on blades less than an inch thick.
“You can be in the front with a corner to go for Olympic gold and be taken out. You can be in the back and everyone is taken out and you win gold. This sport is incredible. It keeps you on the edge of your seat until the very end.”
You could argue that a self-described “little Cuban-American boy from Miami” finding his way onto the ice in the first place was equally unpredictable.
Alvarez was handed a plastic pair of rollerblades as a youngster and soon he was wowing South Beach crowds on weekends.
He started skating competitively and became a prodigy, beating kids much older. At 7, he was introduced to the ice, inspired in part by 2002 bronze medalist, Jennifer Rodriguez, who is also from Miami. He also had the same coach, Bob Manning, as J-Rod did.
“I know the first short track race I had was in ’99, when we had the little toilet bowl helmets,” Alvarez jokes. “When they introduced me – I won’t ever forget this – they said ‘Eddy Alvarez from Miami, Florida’ – and there was like ‘huhs?’ in the crowd.”
Nicknamed Eddie the Jet, the little Miami boy wasn’t just a novelty act. He was dominant. At age 11, Alvarez “triple-crowned it” as he says.
“I won short track nationals that year, long track nationals and inline nationals and I was like, I can really take this somewhere.”
Those accomplishments were on hiatus while Alvarez was in high school. He quit skating for three years while he competed in the other love of his life – baseball.
Thanks to a sweet lefthanded swing, Alvarez starred for Columbus and even earned a full athletic scholarship to play shortstop at St. Thomas University. And he almost took it.
“But the fact of being an Olympian and representing my country, my people, my home town just never left the back of my head,” he says.
That torturous love triangle would continue while he trained in Utah. Before his knee surgery, Alvarez had quit skating to return to the diamond at Salt Lake City Community College, where he hit .311 for the 2011 season.
He intends to return to baseball soon, hoping to get drafted, but not until he scratches that Olympic itch one last time.
“I know that this is the highest of the high if I win that gold,” Alvarez says proudly. “It’s definitely something that I want. I want that feeling. I want that tingling sensation – those goosebumps.”