Past glory from El Paso Olympians’ legend thrives

By on February 9, 2014

Though few may know it, El Paso has a legacy of athletes competing in the Olympics — many of whom are affiliated with The University of Texas at El Paso.Joy Barron still remembers when UTEP alumnus Javier Montez — the first El Paso-born Olympian — qualified for the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland.

“It was very low key,” said the long-time El Pasoan, who had a class with the legendary runner. “At that time there weren’t that many students on campus, but everyone knew who he was and appreciated what he had accomplished.”

Montez, a graduate of Bowie High School, broke the state record for the mile while in high school and went on to enroll at UTEP. At just 21 years old, he made the U.S. Olympic team and participated in the 1,500-meter dash with Roger Bannister, the world’s first four-minute miler.

Although Montez didn’t place at the games, many were and still are proud of his feat.

“I remember whenever we went to UTEP games, people would come up and say, ‘You know your dad was an amazing runner,'” his daughter, Marcia Montez Smith, said. “But he was very reserved and modest and really didn’t speak about it to anyone. Whenever someone would mention anything, he would just shrug it off.”

As the Olympic Winter Games get underway in Sochi, Russia, El Pasoans can be proud of the former Olympians who have come out of The University of Texas at El Paso during its 100-year history.

UTEP Olympians have historically made their mark during the summer games. Other notable UTEP Olympians since Montez include U.S men’s basketball players Jim “Bad News” Barnes, who played center on the gold medal team at the 1964 games in Tokyo, and Jim Forbes, whose teammates refused their silver medals at the 1972 Munich games after alleged Cold War-era judging bias.

Then there’s the great Bob Beamon, who leapt past the former long jump world record by almost 2 feet at the 1968 games in Mexico City. Competitor Igor Ter-Ovanesyan said, “Compared to that jump, we are as children.” Beamon, who was on the UTEP track team at the time, won the gold and set a new record that would remain unbeaten for the next 22 years.

More recently, UTEP alumna Ria Stalman earned gold for her country, the Netherlands, in discus at the 1984 games; Nigerian alumnus Olapade Adeniken won silver in the 4-by-100-meter Olympic relay in 1992; Nigerian alumnae Oludamola Osayomi and Halimat Ismaila took bronze at the 2008 Beijing Olympic games in the 4-by-100-meter relay; and Nigerian alumna Blessing Okagbare took bronze in the long jump that year.

One of the newest UTEP track stars, Anthony Rotich, is striving to make the 2016 Olympic team in steeplechase, representing his home country of Kenya.

“In 2012 I was 11th on the list at home,” Rotich said. “But I think I have moved up. All the guys ahead of me are older, been doing this a long time.

“It is my time. It is their time to go.”

UTEP track and field Coach Paul Ereng believes it is, too.

Ereng knows what it takes to be an Olympian: he holds an Olympic gold medal in the 800-meter dash.

“Many students deny themselves a chance of getting somewhere,” Ereng said. “Athletes need to have more confidence and support. They can’t rule themselves out. You can do whatever you put your mind to.”

When he won gold in 1988, Ereng was in last place for most of the race.

“Even though I didn’t have experience, I knew my abilities, my strengths and my weaknesses,” he said. “I knew I was faster than most of the runners and made a decision to run faster to see if I could win.”

The decision paid off. Ereng went on to be the surprise victor of the race, beating out several former champions. A year later, he set a world record for the very same event.

Becoming an Olympic champion requires talent, a good support system, a plan and most importantly, confidence, the coach said.

“This isn’t something that someone can suggest for you,” Ereng said. “You’re the one who has to make the decision to not rule yourself out.”

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Nadia M. Whitehead is a former writer for UTEP's University Communications office.