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Dominican Darling World champion Felix Sanchez will get a hero's welcome when he competes at the Pan Am Games

Spend a few days in the Dominican Republic's capital, Santo
Domingo, and you'll see Felix Sanchez everywhere: on roadside
billboards, on storefront windows and occasionally even leading
the evening news reports. If those images don't convince you that
the 2001 world champion in the 400-meter hurdles is a
larger-than-life figure in the country, then the 50-foot-high
action photo of him across from Juan Pablo Duarte Stadium should
do the trick. It's a tribute to an athlete who will bear the
weight of a nation's expectations when he competes in Santo
Domingo at the Pan Am Games this week.

It isn't merely that Sanchez, 25, was chosen last year by various
national newspapers as the most popular athlete in the country,
ahead of Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez and Pedro Martinez; or that
he carried the nation's flag into Duarte Stadium last Friday
during the Pan Am Games' opening ceremonies; or that he is
unbeaten in 24 hurdle races over the last two years. It is that
the New York-born, San Diego-raised Sanchez will be competing on
Dominican soil for the first time. "I fall asleep thinking what
it will sound like," he says. "Everywhere I run, someone else is
the crowd favorite. Now I get to be the favorite son."

Felix's Dominican-born parents separated when he was three. His
father, Felix Sr., returned to his homeland and did not see his
son again until 2000. Felix's mother, Inocencia Morcelo, raised
him in San Diego, where she owns a cosmetics shop. "I'd explain
that my parents were Dominican," Felix says, "but the other kids
would say, 'Why don't you speak better Spanish?' It made me very
shy. When my mom spoke Spanish, I'd answer in English. Even today
my tenses are a little off."

One thing he was sure of was his interest in sports. During his
sophomore year at University City High School, he broke his right
wrist in wrestling practice; John Hutsel, the school's track
coach, was in the gym when the injury occurred. "To lift my
spirits," Felix says, "John told me, 'Good, you can try out for
track.'" Sanchez obliged and became an average quarter-miler, but
Hutsel coaxed him to try hurdling. Although Felix won several
races and advanced to state sectionals, in one race he fell over
a hurdle and hit his head on the track. "I was fine," Sanchez
says, "but I was mad. I vowed to master the event. I've never
fallen since."

Sanchez earned a track scholarship to USC, where he would later
win an NCAA title. As a dual citizen he represented the Dominican
Republic at the 1999 Pan Am Games in Winnipeg, finishing fourth.
A year later he lost in the semis at the Sydney Olympics. Then,
on the night before the hurdles final at the 2001 world
championships in Edmonton, Andres Polimar, the president of the
Dominican Track and Field Federation, told Sanchez, "You're going
to win tomorrow. Do you know the words to the anthem?" When
Sanchez said no, Polimar sang it to him. "Felix has done what no
other Dominican has done," Polimar says. "More people are
participating in track because of him. He's the kind of person we
want our children to follow."

Sanchez, who lives in Culver City, Calif., has been surprised by
the way he's been embraced by the Dominicans. During a trip to
Santo Domingo in April, he was invited to the beachfront home of
President Hipolito Mejia. As Sanchez stared out at the Caribbean,
Mejia told him, "Most of our athletes grow up here and have their
special moments abroad. We are proud to have you come home for

COLOR PHOTO: JAMIE MCDONALD/GETTY IMAGES (SANCHEZ) HIGH TIME Sanchez will finally race in the Dominican Republic.


Pan Am Games News and Notes

Gary Hall Jr., winner of eight Olympic medals in Atlanta and
Sydney, will use the Pan Ams to gauge his fitness and determine
whether to pursue a comeback in Athens. Swimming events begin on
Monday.... The U.S. boxing team, reeling after only three
fighters won bouts at the world championships in Bangkok last
month, will have its hands full against a Cuban delegation that
includes world champs Mario Kindelan (left), Lorenzo Aragon and
Odlanier Solis.... Gymnast Nastia Liukin, 13, won't be eligible
for the Olympics until 2008, but remember her name. Nastia, who
led the U.S. to a gold medal in the all-around last weekend, is
the daughter of Valeri Liukin, a gold medalist in 1988.... The
Dominican government declared last Friday a national holiday to
coincide with the opening ceremonies and also canceled classes at
some of the universities for the first two weeks of August,
hoping to boost attendance at events.