For any Olympic athlete, it’s a tremendous honor to be selected as a your country’s flag-bearer – but sometimes being thrust into the national spotlight can have unintended consequences. In the case of Puerto Rican wrestler and Olympic silver medalist Jaime Espinal, it was his status as a Dominican-born immigrant that caused for some unfortunate backlash from a small, but vocal sector of Puerto Rican society.
But Espinal hasn’t let the criticism phase him. Much like the nearly 70,000 Dominicans who call the island home, Espinal proudly considers himself a Puerto Rican, and will happily step to any critic who dare question his authenticity. And with good reason – Espinal came to Puerto Rico in 1989, only five years after he was born in Santo Domingo.
Understandably, the island’s 2016 flag bearer doesn’t deny his Dominican origins, but he praises Puerto Rico as the land “that gave me opportunity, opened doors for me, for my family, that gave me my education, and it’s where I discovered sports.” For Espinal, this gratitude left him with no doubt as to which country he would represent as an Olympic wrestler, though he’s quick to point out to critics that the decision to rep for la Isla del Encanto was a conscious choice: “That should count for something,” he says.
The 31-year-old’s relationship with wrestling began at a young age, when lifelong trainer Pedro Rojas approached him and a group of friends about exploring the sport. After initially confusing Rojas’ proposition for the far more spectacular lucha libre, Espinal was entranced by the acrobatic finesse of freestyle wrestling. From there, the young athlete quickly took to the sport and Rojas emerged as an important paternal figure in Espinal’s life.
Espinal’s journey to the Olympic podium was by no means a straight line.
Nevertheless, Espinal’s journey to the Olympic podium was by no means a straight line. As he explained in a 2012 interview with the magazine N-Punto, there were often moments when economic necessity forced the young man to put his focus on other endeavors. The hardship became especially acute when Espinal moved to New York with his mother at age 15. Overwhelmed by the racism and violence he suffered at his New York high school, Espinal begged his mother to return to Puerto Rico. Just a year later, he moved back to the island on his own and worked to support himself as he finished school.
This crooked path also took him through a stint as at the University of Puerto Rico – Bayamón, where he studied physical education, and even into a b-boy crew called Time Machine Squad, where his athletic endowments found him dancing backup for the likes of Tego Calderón, Ivy Queen, and Daddy Yankee. Luckily for Espinal, however, Pedro Rojas wasn’t willing to give up on him that easily.
“Everything changed when my trainer realized I was losing focus,” Espinal recalled. “He told me: I got together some money so you can go to Cuba and train for nine months.” This sojourn in Cuba was ultimately a life-changing experience for Espinal, who was finally able to dedicate himself entirely to the sport while taking time to reflect on his goals. After returning home to Puerto Rico, he won a gold medal at the 2010 Central American Games in Mayagüez – a feat that finally allowed Espinal to dedicate himself full-time to training.
But his greatest glory was still yet to come, and Espinal shocked the world only two years later when he took home the silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics. At the time, it was actually Espinal’s close friend and wrestling teammate Franklin Gómez who was heavily favored make the podium, while Espinal hard registered on medal-watchers’ radars. Nevertheless, the 27-year-old Dominico-Boricua fought his way through two tough rounds before losing 3-1 in the finals against Sharif Sharifov of Azerbaijan. The fact that he was selected to lead Puerto Rico’s 39-strong delegation this year has special significance for Espinal, who considers himself a natural leader and relishes the opportunity to motivate his fellow athletes.
But really, it’s the symbolism behind his selection that motivates Espinal most. “I think the fact that I’m the flag bearer will help raise awareness that we’re one country, one society,” he suggested in a recent interview. “Puerto Ricans are not only those who were born here, but also those who feel Puerto Rican and work for the good of the country.”