Meet the Guatemalan Power-Walking Power Couple Competing at the Olympics

This year at the Olympic Games in Rio, husband-and-wife power walking duo Erick Barrondo and Mirna Ortíz will try to triple Guatemala’s medal count. As it stands, Barrondo is the only chapin to have brought the Central American country a medal at the Olympic Games. His time of 1:18:57 in London earned him a silver in the men’s 20 km race walk. It’s an impressive performance, but unfortunate timing for Barrondo. Any other year, that time could have earned him a gold medal. It just so happens that in 2012, China’s Chen Ding set a new Olympic record with his time of 1:18:46. The 25-year-old – who won gold at the 2011 Pan American Games – may feel he has a legitimate chance at gold this year, even though he’s coming off of a disqualification at last year’s World Championships.

Barrondo actually found his calling in an unexpected way. He started out as a distance runner, following in the footsteps of his parents, according to Mundo Chapin. He suffered an injury, and began walking as a way to recover on his coach’s suggestion. This change led him to become one of Guatemala’s heroes.

Ortíz, on the other hand, will look to erase the memories of 2012. After a strong start to her 20 km race, judges disqualified her at the 8 km mark because she lifted both her feet off the ground at the same time. Race walking requires one foot on the ground with every stride. The leading leg must also be straight. If you want to run, you have to take that shit somewhere else. It’s supposed to look like this:

Going into the Olympics, Barrondo didn’t even have a complete understanding of how race walking worked. “We had a coach that simply said to us: ‘Just start moving!’ He never explained the rules or the technique to us,” he told DW. “When we arrived in London with the team, we didn’t even know 20 percent of the rules. We developed under the motto ‘practice makes perfect.’ Later, when Bohdan Bulakowski came to Guatemala, we learned a great deal about our sport. This helped us avoid disqualifications based on technical mistakes.”

Hopefully, this is the push Ortíz needs to succeed. Al Jazeera tells her story in the video below; it’s hard to watch and not feel bad about how the 2012 Olympics turned out for her. After overcoming the obstacles that make it hard for a person of limited means to become an elite athlete – as well as the death of her mother and the loss of her two children in a custody battle – she hoped to see her sacrifices pay off as she crossed the finish line in London.

Starting in grade school, Ortíz played different sports – like gymnastics, basketball, and soccer – and found that she always excelled. Then in 1999, Guatemalan Julio Martínez set a new world record in the 20 km race walk. With only 19 days of training, then 12-year-old Ortíz began competing. But things were difficult for her. In high school, she dropped the sport, because she needed to help support her 11 siblings and mother. Training also didn’t come cheap. But a Cuban coach persuaded her to come back.

Barrondo and Ortíz bonded over their shared desire to escape poverty through sports.

During the hardest times she experienced in Guatemala, she – like many Central Americans before and after her – considered making the journey to live in the United States as an undocumented immigrant six years ago. “I could have gone de mojada. In my family, there are some who have immigrated, and the thought of heading over crossed my mind, but no, I couldn’t, because I liked the sport too much. I felt that my opportunity was here,” the 29-year-old told Efe.

Race walking also brought Ortíz and Barrondo together. They bonded over their shared desire to escape poverty through sports. “Sometimes, one of us had food and we would share it, but other days we both had nothing,” she said.

Barrondo and Ortíz married in Russia after the 2013 World Championships, in which they both competed. According to W Radio, their marriage inspires the Guatemalan people, because they started with nothing and worked their way to becoming two of the best athletes in Latin America (Side note: Every country needs to pair up two of its best athletes to make future super babies).

Should you need another reason to root for Barrondo, there’s that time he defended indigenous people in Guatemala. A local DJ posted an image of the runner with the caption “quiere maní, semilla de marañón, o habas?” alluding to the hard work of indigenous vendors who sell peanuts, cashews, and fava beans on the street. “No one has the right to judge or criticize people’s work,” Barrondo told Agence France-Presse. “I’m not bothered by the profession that he attributed to me in his message, because if I were a street vendor I would do it with excellence. What bothered me is what the message implies.”

Should things go poorly in Rio, Barrondo and Ortíz will help each other move forward. After receiving matching disqualifications at the World Championships in 2015, Barrondo told Efe, “The bad things have made us more united, and if God put her in my path, it’s so that we could support each other.”