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No-Name Sports Shine For Puerto Rico At Pan Am Games

By Gabrielle Paese

August 8, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- Almost a week into the Pan Am Games here, Puerto Rico has already made its own history in small, but significant steps.

Those advances came from sports federations and athletes voted Least Likely To Succeed in the Puerto Rican Pan Am Class of 2003. That doesn't mean they weren't good, just underestimated.

Puerto Rico's first gold medal at these XIV Pan Am Games came from 17-year-old gymnast Tommy Ramos, competing in his first big meet. Ramos scored a 9.55 on the high bar in the individual apparatus finals, beating all challengers by the proverbial one-armed giant swing.

Fellow underachiever Victor Bernier, a 24-year-old medical student at the University of Puerto Rico, had skewered another surprise upset one day earlier in the individual men's epee fencing finals, earning bronze and marking Puerto Rico's first medal at this edition of the games.

Decathlete Luiggy Llanos also got his picture in that yearbook when he finished with a silver medal after the 10 events, despite losing the final 1,500 meter race by nearly 200 meters. Llanos was the one track and field athlete no one pegged to win a medal. He actually led the competition through almost eight of the 10 events, before Steve Moore, of the United States, got the best of him in the final two.

After six days, Puerto Rico had already won a total of eight medals, right on pace to surpass its dismal 13-medal (one gold) performance at the 1999 Pan Am Games in Winnipeg, Canada. Even usually gloomy P.R. Olympic Committee president Hector Cardona admitted he was pleased with the turn of events.

The stories of Ramos, Bernier and Llanos more than made up for the drama of Puerto Rico's basketball team, which lost, 79-65, to the Dominican Republic in the semifinal and had to settle for the bronze medal on Wednesday night with a 76-70 victory over a U.S. team of collegiate caliber.

Puerto Rico is a basketball-mad island, especially when it comes to its international team. Unfortunately, the basketball noise can sometimes drown out even La Borinquena, the Puerto Rican anthem that was heard in Parque del Este's Gymnastics arena here on Tuesday after Ramos earned his gymnastics gold medal.

Like it or not, basketball shouts out louder than the smaller sports -- even when those smaller sports shine -- as they have this week.

The Pan Am Games basketball tournament here was short and sweet, but Julio Toro and his players packed plenty of action into it. In the final game of the first round, Toro took a lot of heat for his decision to sit his starters and use his youngest players in a meaningless game versus Argentina. Puerto Rico ended up losing the game, 92-67. The loss did not affect Puerto Rico's standing in the tournament and gave players like Rick Apodaca, Peter John Ramos, Bimbo Carmona, LarryAyuso and Bobby Joe Hatton some valuable international seasoning. By letting them lose, Julio taught them to be humble. All of them may be stars in their Superior Basketball League galaxy, but now they know other galaxies exist.

The basketball bronze medal was a blessing in disguise for Puerto Rico's entire delegation here. Had it been gold, athletes like Tommy Ramos, Victor Bernier and Luiggy Llanos might have been lost in the shuffle. And their stories definitely deserve telling.

Ramos, just 17 and about to start his senior year at Colegio San Antonio in Rio Piedras, barely made Puerto Rico's team two years ago.

"No one at the federation wanted him. He was so tall and skinny," said his coach Jose "Cano" Colon, who only saw potential. "I knew I could work with him. I knew he was going to be a great gymnast."

Two days prior to the team competition, Colon heralded his young gymnast to anyone who would listen.

"He's going to be even better than ŒTingui' [pommel horse silver medalist Luis Felipe Vargas]," said Colon. "The [NCAA] universities are going to come looking for him after this meet."

The veteran coach was dead-on right. Ramos scored a 9.10 on the high bar during the team competition and you could tell by watching that it was a keeper.

"I knew that all I had to do was do the same routine again and I would win a medal," said Ramos after repeating the feat three nights later for the gold medal in the individual meet.

Bernier's bronze-medal victory was also a surprise to everyone except his coach, Gilberto Pena.

"Victor has a unique style of fencing, it's rowdier than what the staid community of fencing is used to, but I think it's good for the sport," said Pena. "The coach of the Italian team was here to watch and he said he thinks fencing needs a little more enthusiasm. It's too formal."

Bernier missed a chance at the gold medal when he lost to Cuba's Camilo Boris by one point, 15-14. It was a match that could have gone either way, Bernier was that close to winning. Asked how he would celebrate his bronze medal and the team epee fencing bronze he subsequently won along with his brother, Victor, and brother Marcos and Jonathan Pena, Bernier scratched out the very idea of a party.

"I've got to get back to the books. I've already lost two weeks of studying just being here."

At these games so far it has been the smaller sports federations that have put Puerto Rico on the map.

"I understand how the people identify with the basketball team and I wouldn't want to take anything away from that," said coach Pena after the fencers won the team epee medal Wednesday. "But the Olympic Committee demands so much of the smaller federations, they want guarantees that we'll win a medal before we can compete internationally. Yet its the smaller sports that come through and perform when these kind of games come around. Our athletes have to either be students or have full-time jobs. Even with a government stipend, they can't live off their sport. So it's rewarding to see them win medals."

USTA names Brandi Player of Week

Kristina Brandi, who is the fourth-seed at these Pan Am Games, was named USTA Circuit Player of the Week by the USTA. Last week, before heading here she won the $50,000 Louisville Challenger. The complete story is at on its main page. Brandi was the 2002 Central American-Caribbean Games gold medallist and the impetus for Puerto Rico's move up to Group I in Fed Cup play.http://www.usta.comon

Gabrielle Paese is the Assistant Sports Editor at the San Juan Star. She is the 2000 recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at

Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.

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