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Running against Everything: Maria Pia Fernandez, the Uruguayan Athlete Willing to Break Records in Toronto

Running against Everything: Maria Pia Fernandez, the Uruguayan Athlete Willing to Break Records in Toronto

Posted by José Peralta on April 22, 2015

In one of the smallest cities of one of the continent’s smallest countries, a 13-year-old girl runs fast. She runs faster than her male friends. Every week she finishes first after doing three laps of the park, as ordered by the physical education professor. Challenging age and setbacks, winning beyond all predictions. That’s the history of Maria Pia Fernandez, a 20-year-old Uruguayan athlete that has run to break all records: she presently holds the national record in 1,500 meters, and she will be running in this test at Toronto Pan-American Games.

According to Maria Pia, each race has represented a “unique experience”: her first trip abroad at the age of 14, holding the highest record in South America, climbing to the podium in three South American Games, qualifying for the World Athletics Championship and joining the “major leagues” in Toronto 2015. With the humbleness of a person that has won each medal with great effort and tenacity, Maria sees Toronto Pan-American Games as “another opportunity” to keep on improving her skills before her first Olympic Games.

In Toronto she will be competing, as usual, with more experienced and better trained runners, but she’s not afraid. “There are several Pan-American Games in my future” Fernandez says, a girl that is running her way up to become one of the most outstanding athletes on the continent. The average reading time of this interview is around 9 minutes. In that time, Maria Pia runs nearly three kilometers. 

How did you discover that running was your passion?

I didn’t actually realize. It happened by chance. I was in high school, I was 13 years old and my physical education professor told us to do three laps of the Centenarian Park, which is nestled in my hometown, Trinidad (25,000 inhabitants). I used to run with the boys and, in fact, outrun them. It was very natural and funny. I thought that could be my thing, but it was only three times a week. Then my teacher invited me to participate in a two-kilometer race in August 2008.

I ran those 2 km and Sebastian Allende, my present trainer, was taking the times at the finishing line. He saw me and invited me to join the athletics school. That’s when I fell in love with running. At the beginning we had practice all disciplines; throwing, jumping… and I finally decided that running was my thing. Just a few months later, in December, I competed at municipal and national levels. I won both and qualified for the minor South American Championship. I was 13 years old and it was my first international competition, after four months of training.

Were you on the podium?

I ranked 11th. I was totally amateur as compared to the other girls. I was very disappointed because I was used to running and winning in Flores and Montevideo. Then I ran and passed the finishing line in the 11th position... I finished and cry. That’s when I understood what the athletics level was about.

How did you get over that hard experience?

I kept on training and in 2009 I won several national competitions, under-16, under-14… everything at the age of 14, and I even prevailed in an under-18 in Montevideo. I won and qualified to the South American high school tournament that took place in Ecuador. I had never before traveled abroad. That was my first flight and it was magical. I was motivated by those things. I improved my marks in that event, I didn’t stand on the podium, but my attitude was different, I was more realistic.

In 2010 I only attended national competitions and won in different categories. At the age of 15 I ran in the under-20 category and won the 1,500 meters. Your expectations go higher: at the beginning you’re happy to qualify and go to the South American event; then you realize that you can go farther and focus your efforts.

Qualifying for an official South American event, that was my goal. I was about to make it in 2011. In 2012, I began traveling abroad because the competing level was low here and if you don’t face stronger competitors, you won’t break your own records. There aren’t many competitors in the 800-meter discipline in Uruguay, so we went to two competitions in Argentina.

I had run 800 meters in 2 minutes and 24 seconds in Uruguay. The qualifying time was 2 minutes 17. In the first tournament in Argentina I ran the distance in 2:18 and in the second one, held in Rosario, I went down to 2:12. That was a giant click because I was on the podium, established the highest South American record in the under-18 category when I was only 16 years old and I ranked first for the South American event.

It brought about great joy and, at the same time, a lot of pressure because I knew that in my first official South American competition they would try to put me down because I had establish the record. I finished second with 2:13.

You were 16 years old and had won a silver medal and established a South American record. It should’ve been very intense. How did you cope with those feelings?

I was very happy, but I was also upset with myself because the girl that defeated me took advantage over the last 100 meters. However, my trainer and I always talk about establishing goals and looking ahead. So qualifying for the junior Pan-American Games was our objective.

I devoted my work in 2013 to reach that goal. That was another incredible experience because it was the first time I competed with non-South American athletes (United States, Canada, Jamaica). It’s another league: they train in a high performance center, they fly. I train in a grit-and-cinders track, a land track with a black dust where you cannot wear spikes because they break every week. So I keep on running at the Centenarian Park and I come to Montevideo to check my times.

Colombia was my first experience with true professionals, and I ran 800 and 1,500 m. It was terrible, but I improved my time in 800 m. I knew that I was only racing against the South American athletes. I never thought about the two North Americans, two Canadians and one Cuban on the race. I ranked sixth and stood out as the best South American athlete. In 2013 I returned to the South American event and finished second.

You also turned 18 that year. How was the change of category?

I began running in other categories and in 2014 we worked to qualify for the Athletics World Championship in Oregon, United States. The requirements were even higher: the qualifying time was 2 minutes and nine seconds. I traveled to Argentina so as to compete, but I didn’t make that time. The South American Games were also held that year (Odesur) and I was invited. Once again, if you don’t face strong athletes your results remain the same.

It was hard to find that competition level in Uruguay and Argentina. I went to Odesur in Chile and ran 800 meters in two minutes, eight seconds and 63 thousandths and I qualified for the World Championship. Furthermore, I broke the national record in 800 meters.

The World Championship was amazing. I spent years watching it on TV while my idols were running. That year I was very lucky to be there with them and run... it was fantastic.

How about the South American Championship?

We knew that we had a chance for the podium, but I was racing against well-trained and experienced girls. I ran and won a bronze medal.

Afterwards, I traveled to San Pablo and this competition marked my career: I ran 1,500 meters in 4 minutes, 26 seconds and 61 thousandths. I established the national under-20 record and the national absolute record. I went all the way to the top.

But that time wasn’t enough to go to the Pan-American Games…

No, it wasn’t. 61 thousandths kept me away from qualifying. I got very angry because I broke national records, but I couldn’t meet the requirements for Toronto Pan-American Games. My trainer told me that qualifying for the Pan-American Games wasn’t included in our plans. Being 20 years old and participating in the Pan-American Games is not totally right… you’re like a baby while the rest of the competitors have impressive experience and level.

That was when I ran in a national competition and I improved my time and broke my own national record: I put it down to 4 minutes, 24 seconds. So, we’re going to do our best in Toronto and we’ll keep on working to raise our level, aiming at the Olympic Games.

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