Albert Pardo, the former wrestling coach at South Miami High, remembers the day he went into the basketball court looking for Alejandro “Alex” Sancho.
It was 2008, Pardo heard that there was a young JV basketball player who had excelled in judo since kindergarten and thought he would be a perfect candidate for the wrestling team.
Never in his wildest dreams would Pardo have thought that a child, the son of Cuban immigrants, would travel to the Tokyo Olympics as a specialist in the US Army to compete as a Greco-Roman wrestler for Team USA.
“I went up to Alex, who was about five feet at the time, and said, ‘Did you see our basketball team?’ Pardo remembered with a chuckle. “There are people on this team 6-5. So if you want to play three years in the JV and not play your senior year, stay here. If you want to win a few state titles, come with me. ”
Sancho reluctantly agreed to take part in wrestling training. Using the judo skills he learned at Sylvania Heights Elementary, he knocked down a couple of guys on the Cobras team. So his love affair began with the wrestling.
In his senior year, Sancho had qualified for three state tournaments and finished in the top four in his junior and senior years. When not fighting for school, he competed for clubs under coach Humberto Miret, who is now the director of Southridge High, and Nestor Varona, a former Cuban wrestler who ran a club called Garage Boyz.
Sancho specialized in Greco-Roman (which is based on the torso) and earned a spot in the prestigious Fargo tournament, the pinnacle of high school freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling. The event takes place over a week in Fargo, North Dakota and attracts hundreds of college scouts.
“If you finish in the top eight at Fargo, you’re almost guaranteed a college scholarship and Alex finished sixth,” said Sancho’s father, Fernando Hernandez, finance manager at Kendall Toyota. “Nobody knew who he was. There were 100 kids in his group, most of them from places like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and they were wondering, “Who is this Miami boy?”
Sancho accepted a scholarship to Northern Michigan University, which offers an Olympic training and education program for Greco-Roman wrestlers. Sancho says he wasn’t prepared for the culture and climate shock in Marquette, Michigan.
“When I left Miami at the age of 18, I had no idea what to expect,” said Sancho, who is now 27. “My parents kind of sent me away and said, ‘You have to go and spread your own wings.’ I put a small duffel bag, a couple of T-shirts, a Columbia jacket, a couple of shorts, and no pants in it. I didn’t take any pants with me. When the cold came in, I definitely bought pants and boots. “
Sancho credits NMU coaches Ron Hermann and Aghasi Manukyan, former Armenian world champion, for helping him reach the sport’s elite.
“I had great mentors up there who taught me what to do to be the best in the US and the world,” he said. “I had to leave my family and friends behind, make these sacrifices and dedicate myself fully to the sport. If not, I wouldn’t be going anywhere.
“Friends saw my social media posts from up there and said, ‘He’s loco, he’s crazy.’ Now they are all really proud of me. I wasn’t the best or most athletic kid, but I’ve always been hardworking, always had this drive since I was little. I always had the dream of becoming an Olympic champion. “
He said being a U.S. Olympic champion was especially important because he’s in the military and because his parents left Cuba in search of freedom in the United States.
His mother, Miriam Sancho Mora, came to Miami from Cuba with her mother in the 1980 Mariel boat lift at the age of 4. She is a real estate manager of condominiums in the Dadeland area. His birth father died when he was an infant and he was raised by Fernando Hernandez, who emigrated from Cuba at 19 and married Sancho’s mother, since he was 2 years old. Alex has a 23 year old brother, Fernando “Nando” Hernandez.
“It means a lot to me to run for the United States,” said Sancho. “My family is very proud of me. I am delighted to represent not only the United States, but also the men and women who serve our country. “
After graduating from college, he wanted to pursue a career as a police officer and considered the military to be the best option. He joined the Army in 2018 and joined the WCAP (World Class Athlete Program).
“They told me I could be an athlete and a soldier at the same time and pursue my military career,” said Sancho. “I learned a lot through the basic training and the IT training. I became a better person, more disciplined, more hardworking. I learned all of these qualities when I became a soldier. That definitely developed into a wrestler and enabled me to form this Olympic team. “
Eight Olympic athletes from the USA come to Tokyo from the WCAP program, in wrestling, boxing, shooting and in modern pentathlon.
Wrestling made it possible for Sancho to see the world. Among the places he has attended: Russia, Croatia, Sweden, Kazakhstan, Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, Chile, Poland. He has traveled to Cuba three times.
“It’s beautiful there, the buildings, the architecture, the art,” he said. “I have a family there, aunts, uncles and cousins. It was nice to meet her for the first time. It was a humbling experience. I’m happy to be A-Grade in the USA because we have so many opportunities that I may not have there.
Cuba has a strong wrestling tradition and one of this summer’s gold medal favorites in Sancho’s 147 lbs (67 kg) weight class is Cuban wrestler Ismael Barrero. He won gold at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio and is two-time reigning world champion.
“When the Cuban wrestlers find out that I’m Cuban and that I speak Spanish, we have long conversations,” said Sancho. “We’re friends off the mat, rivals on the mat.”
He lives in northern Michigan and Colorado and misses Miami’s Cuban food. “There are no empanadas, vaca frita, rock steak or anything like that,” he said. “There’s a Cuban restaurant in Colorado Springs that I went to, but it’s nothing like Miami.”
At the Pan Am Games 2019, he qualified for the 2020 Olympic Games.COVID applied in early 2020 and everything was on hold. He tore his right chest tendon while lifting weights in November. He spent four months in rehab and won the Olympics on April 2-3 in Fort Worth, Texas.
His parents can hardly contain their excitement.
“I’m so overwhelmed, I have to pinch myself to see if this is really true,” said Sancho’s mother.
“I have no words to express how much joy and pride I feel,” said his father. “He not only represents the USA, but also Miami, the Cuban community and the local wrestling and jujitsu community.”
Sancho, who is married to Shae Buasri, is traveling to the pre-Olympic camp in Atlanta on Tuesday and travels to Tokyo for the Olympic acclimatization camp on July 12. He is scheduled to compete on August 1st and 2nd.
“Nobody deserves to be an Olympian more than Alex,” said Pardo. “He persevered. He came second so many times and never gave up. He’s finally got over the hump and is US champion. No matter what he’s doing over there, he’s already a winner. ”
Miami Herald sports journalist Michelle Kaufman has covered 14 Olympics, six World Championships, Wimbledon, US Open, NCAA basketball tournaments, and NBA playoffs, and has been the University of Miami’s basketball beat writer for 20 years. She was born in Frederick, Maryland and raised in Miami.