By Emma Sarran Webster
For most people, running 26.2 miles in one go would be an impressive enough feat to warrant at least a week of celebration and relaxation — but 29-year-old Diego Estrada isn’t most people. Two days after crossing the finish line of the 2019 Chicago Marathon in 19th place (and with a personal best of 2:11:54, or an average of roughly five minutes per mile), he was already hitting the pavement for an eight-mile training run with his sights set on his next big goal: securing a spot on the United States 2020 Olympic Track & Field (USATF) team.
It’s a goal he’s been chasing for the past eight years, since the 2012 Olympic Games in London, where he represented Mexico in the 10,000-meter track race. A U.S. resident since he was 13 months old, he became a citizen in 2011 and had initially hoped to compete as a member of Team USA. But he missed the chance due to confusion surrounding the recently changed USATF rules of eligibility and citizenship. So when Mexico invited him to represent them in London, he took the opportunity.
He didn’t always dream of running glory — or running at all, for that matter. He serendipitously stumbled into the sport during his freshman year of high school when he had to fulfill an honors program requirement of joining a club or sport. “I figured that I’d join cross country because [I thought], how hard could it be?” he tells MTV News. “They just show up and they run.” He wasn’t cleared to compete in the first meet of the season, but seeing the race from the sidelines was motivation enough. “Without even actually racing, I was hooked on it just by watching my fellow peers compete,” he says.
Of course, succeeding in the sport requires far more than just showing up — which Estrada now knows all too well. As a pro, he runs almost every day, sometimes twice. His training regimen requires early bedtimes and taking breaks from family holiday gatherings to run. “The training itself is not fun,” he says, adding that the runs are “a lonely process most of the time,” and he mentally often suffers alone, even if he’s working with a team or a coach. “It’s the competition that’s fun.”
In high school, he earned two California regional championship titles, among other successes, and went on to Northern Arizona University (NAU), where he racked up a long list of championship titles and accolades and established himself as one of the fastest collegiate runners in the country. And he did it all despite a string of health problems — including a collapsed lung and an Achilles injury — that tested his mettle. He admits that he has questioned if the sport is worth it, “But when you get across that [finish] line, and things actually turn out the way you want them, then it’s easy to get the motivation to fuel you to get through another phase.”
That perseverance ultimately led to Estrada qualifying for the 2012 Olympics as a college junior, but that achievement came with an entirely new kind of challenge when people weren’t as supportive as he’d hoped they would be on either side of the U.S./Mexico border, despite it being quite common for Olympic athletes to compete outside of their home country. “People were surprised that I was actually fluent in Spanish; and here and there, you would hear comments that I was taking a spot that didn’t belong to me because I wasn’t a ‘true’ Mexican,” he says of his arrival in the country; stateside, he remembers people calling him “unpatriotic,” and also claimed he “was running away from the real competition” by taking “an easier route” to the Olympics. “It felt like I betrayed my country,” he says now.
But there isn’t an “easy route” to one of the most competitive athletic competitions in the world: Every runner, regardless of country, has to achieve an “A” or “B” qualifying standard time established by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) — each country can send up to three qualifying runners in each event, and only one with a “B” time. In 2012, Estrada was the sole Mexican runner to achieve the 10,000-meter race “A” standard (which was 27:45, or an average of four minutes and 28 seconds per mile), in addition to the five American runners who did so at Team USA trials; in his qualifying race at a separate event, Estrada was faster than four of them. Only 29 athletes ran the race in London; three athletes did not finish the 6.2-mile run. He came in 21st place, about 54 seconds behind Mo Farah’s first-place finish for Great Britain.
In retrospect, Estrada wishes he had focused more on his performance at the Olympics and ignored the backlash; instead, he let those critics “get the best of” him, which took a toll on his body and mind. “Once the games were said and done, I was just too emotionally spent from giving people too much of my attention on both ends,” he says. He continued competing for Mexico after the London games, including in the 2013 IAAF World Championships, but a nagging feeling stuck with him.
“It was really hard to get motivated, and get out of bed, and go and train,” he says. “I was losing momentum and motivation, so I decided to switch my allegiance back to [try to represent] the U.S. in search of that motivation.”
That’s not to say the decision was driven solely by external criticism. The U.S. is his home, and he’s determined to represent his fellow Americans in 2020, especially after experiencing a back spasm during the 2016 Olympic marathon trial and dropping out mid-race. “This country has made me the athlete I am,” he says. “If it wasn't for being raised in this country, I don't know if I would have even become a runner. So in that regard, I owe everything to this country. I am proud of both nationalities, but I am an American citizen.”
And if he earns the chance to join Team USA in Tokyo, Estrada says it will be momentous not only for himself, but also for his family. “We've come a long way, and we are proud American citizens,” he says. “We love this country. It would be a big moment for our family to see that we came here and we've, in a small way or not, made a positive impact in this country, just representing the U.S. I think it's going to fill my parents with a lot of pride.”
That said, he’s not running in a vacuum — he knows what it would mean to compete on Team USA in 2020, with the current president’s legacy looming in the background. In the past year alone, the Trump administration has shut down an immigrant hotline that connected people in detention centers to resources and support; removed protections for undocumented immigrants seeking life-saving care in the U.S.; conducted ICE raids that left children of immigrants stranded at school; expanded a rule allowing officials to deport immigrants without due process; and enforced policies that resulted in the separation of hundreds of migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border. The Supreme Court is also set to hear a series of cases whose decision could impact whether residents who were brought to the U.S. as children, like Diego was, should be protected by programs like the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. These xenophobic policies affect immigrants from every country and continent, but Trump himself has a habit of painting Mexico as an enemy in particular.
For Estrada, then, there’s power in the opportunity to run for Team USA as an immigrant, and in holding his home country to a higher standard. He loves the U.S., he says, “but that doesn’t mean that I approve of the personnel that represents us [or] that I stand for certain things, because they hit home with me. I am an immigrant, and I can’t support children being pulled away from their parents.” He’s nonetheless proud to be an American and represent what he believes that means: “We’re a subculture, [and] made up of so many different colors, ethnicities, cultures, religions,” he says. “And maybe not so much lately, but we used to stand for hope.”
That’s something he’s happy to project from his platform as a professional athlete, especially when it comes to inspiring young people in Latinx communities to take up running. And he still loves the sport just as much now as he did during that first track meet, and perhaps even more, given everything he’s faced to compete at this level.
“It’s like, OK, all those runs were worth it,” he says of the runner’s high he gets after a particularly strong run. “The end result makes it worth it.”