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Rio 2016: Eric Cray
by rick olivares
Eric Shauwn Cray was the first Filipino athlete to qualify for the 2016 Rio De Janeiro Olympics. And the 27-year old Filipino-American hopes that the Olympics, his first, will be memorable in more ways than one.
“This time for sure, whatever happens, the Philippine flag will sewn on right,” laughs the sprinter and hurdler who will depart El Paso, Texas in a few days bound for Brazil.
During the 2015 Southeast Asian Games, it was only after Cray clinched his second gold medal of the regional games in the men’s 400-meter hurdles, when observers noticed that the Philippine tri-color was inverted.
“It was a cool and yet uncool moment,” he recalls about the flag flap during a break in his training at the University of Texas, El Paso, where on his off days, he works at a department store.
During the SEA Games medal ceremony, the Filipino-American's sweats had the red part of the flag on top. The Philippine flag has the blue part on top during times of peace and red when it is at war. “I only race and don’t make the uniform. But no excuses. I should have recognized that right away. I sincerely apologize for that."
However, that’s all in the past. Cray, the fastest man in the Philippines, hopes for a great showing in Rio. In the Summer Games for the men’s 400-meter hurdles, he says that he isn’t worried that he is going up against the big names in the sport in Rio.
Despite competing in a field that includes Finland’s Oskari Moro, Puerto Rico’s Javier Culson, United States’ Michael Tinsley, and Great Britain’s Jack Green among other favorites, Cray says he isn’t afraid or nervous.
“What gets me nervous are the bugs, man. The bugs,” he says referring to the Zika Virus that has cast a dark shadow among other concerns over these games forcing athletes from golf and tennis to name a few sports to pull out. “But this could be a once-in-a-lifetime thing so why not?"
Cray qualified twice for the Olympics — first during the 2015 Cayman Island Invitational and during the 2015 SEA Games. “If that doesn’t prove that he deserves a slot then I don’t know what will,” said Philippine Amateur Track and Field Association president Philip Ella Juico prior to the Philippine delegation’s departure for Rio last July 23.
Aside from the bugs, Cray hopes to maintain his focus. “I believe when I actually get on the plane and touch down in Rio, then it’s really gonna hit me that I’m an Olympian. As we go into the opening ceremonies, I know it’s probably going to be an amazing feeling," he said. "Not probably. I know it is. But right now it hasn't even hit me yet. It's still surreal."
It wasn’t until the 2008 Beijing Olympics that Cray thought about seriously competing. “Watching Angelo Taylor, I thought that that's when I started training and prepping myself harder to make the Olympics."
While studying at Bethune-Cookman University, Cray competed in the NCAA tournament and cracked 2012 NCAA Team All-American (400-meter hurdles and 400-meter relay team).
Then came the conundrum of which country to wear the colors. Although born in the Philippines, Cray was raised in America along with his four other siblings. And before competing in the 2013 Naypyidaw, Myanmar Southeast Asian Games, Eric vacillated between competing for the United States and the Philippines. A conversation with his mother, Maria, swayed him to don the colours of her homeland. “It was also embracing a part of my heritage,” said Cray of that fateful conversation. “And I was born in Olongapo so it’s fine. It also meant doing something for the Philippines. The United States is all set in track. This was doing something new and hopefully historic.”
And now, three Southeast Asian gold medlas and on bronze in the Asian Indoor Championships for the Philippines, Eric Cray is Rio-bound.
“We've been preparing for this moment for the past two years," related Davian Clarke, Cray's coach and who works as an assistant with the UTEP track and field team. “We’ve been training to run the rounds and training to run against people who are just as good and even better.”
He knows he’s up against a tough field. But Cray intends to give it his all. And should he achieve a podium finish, more than making sure the flag is right, it’s a golden or maybe a silver or even a bronze moment.
“Now we gotta make that a reality."