By Trenton Miller
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
For someone that Kansas State track and field director Cliff Rovelto firmly believes will be considered the best all-around sprinter in school history by the time he closes his career, nobody would have picked him out nearly 2,300 miles away from Manhattan Kansas. Not even the athlete himself would have guessed this could be him just four years ago.
K-State senior sprinter Carlos Rodriguez, like many other young men growing up in Puerto Rico, had aspirations outside of the U.S. island territory. While most would dream of playing professional baseball, hope of hitting it big in boxing, or simply wish for scholarships to attend universities, not all things could come to fruition for even the best athletes. Eventually though, Rodriguez’s dreams collided with opportunity.
Rodriguez did not begin competing in track and field events until his senior year of high school in Carolina, Puerto Rico. In his area just east of the capital city San Juan, he did what many of the other kids did - played baseball.
“That was all I focused on as a kid. It’s big in Puerto Rico, so that is all I played. When I was 16 or 17 and did not see my name on the professional draft board, I knew I had to start looking for something else because I was about to go to college and I needed a scholarship,” Rodriguez explained.
That scholarship, by chance, would come through track. A recognized speedster on the ball diamond, he was ushered into the sport by his peers. In his first and only season of high school track he ran a 10.95 100-meter dash - good enough to land a track scholarship to the University of Puerto Rico, where he would run his freshman year of college. Shortly thereafter, a second place finish in Puerto Rico’s junior national championships earned him a place on the national squad.
“When I made the national team, I felt pretty good about everything. I was running with the best at my age, so I knew I could do well in track.”
The following year, Carlos won Puerto Rico’s junior national championships in the 100-meters, setting the national record with a time of 10.40 seconds. 2011 then became a breakout year for Rodriguez, as he finished fifth in both the 100-meters and 200-meters at the July Junior Pan Am Games in Miramar, Florida amidst the viewing of K-State’s track and field coaches.
“We have had a history of good Puerto Rican athletes here at K-State,” explained Rovelto, who has jumped onto the international coaching stage with the United States Track and Field Association eight times. “We knew he had some connections to our school, we knew there could be some interest from him to come here, and we knew he had times that would be competitive in our conference.”
“I knew K-State was at the meet,” added Rodriguez. “I’m close with Beverly Ramos, who ran distance events at K-State, and I had teammates that went here and they only had good things to say about it, so luckily I did well and ran a personal record. That is when I met everyone and we sat down and exchanged information. They asked if I was interested, but I knew I was more than interested.”
Just one month later, Rodriguez competed in the IAAF World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, where he helped set the Puerto Rican national record of 39.04 seconds in the 4x100 relay.
In the upcoming winter, Carlos capped off the year with a move to Manhattan, Kansas.
The transition, though, would not be as smooth as the prior year had been for Rodriguez.
“I had some real struggles early because I knew no English. I had to learn a new language in about six months. And the weather was like nothing I had felt before. I was used to running in 90 degree weather every day, not anything cold.”
“From an athletic standpoint it was a big change for him, as it is with everyone. You can be the best in your country in an array of events, then come here and not be at a level where you’re even an NCAA finalist. The level of competition is just so much higher than student-athletes are used to when they first come,” explained Rovelto.
In his first season as a Wildcat, Rodriguez placed sixth in the 60-meters at the Big 12 Indoor Championships and sixth again in the 200-meters at the Big 12 Outdoors. By the 2013 schedule, he had settled in and made strides.
“Back home, there were little things that could make me go backward instead of moving forward. Here, I have everything close by and the facilities are great. When I want to lift, I can walk to go lift. It’s reassuring and encouraging to have it all right here, and I’m thankful for that.”
“He was able to adapt,” noted senior teammate Erica Twiss. “Since he has been here, he has always been open to change, no matter if it is new or if he is not used to it. If it will help him get where he wants to go, he will absolutely do it.”
That could not have been more evident than in the debut meet of the 2013 Indoor schedule, the KSU All-Comers, where Rodriguez broke K-State’s school record in the 300-meters with a time of 33.64 seconds. He rounded out that winter with a fourth place showing at the Big 12 Indoors and 14th place finish at the NCAA Championships in the 200-meters.
“I was just training and trying to get better after my first full year. I was not expecting to break the record at all, but it was a a different type of amazing feeling for me. I knew I had come a long ways to set that mark.”
Two third place showings at the Big 12 Outdoor Championships in spring 2013 along with an 18th place finish in the 4x100 relay at the NCAA Championships had Rodriguez, as he noted, quite confident. And to start the 2014 indoor season, Rodriguez would again break a record. This time, it was his own.
“I was chasing for it. It was my goal for the first meet. It was early in the season but it showed all my training was working. I felt good breaking it again - breaking records will always feel good -but it is the fact I was working hard and it all paid off,” stated Rodriguez, clearly exuberant.
“He has made so much progress. Of course his personal bests have improved, but as a track athlete he has broadened his range so much,” stated Rovelto. “When he came here he was basically a short sprint guy and now he is running at a high level up through the 400-meters. I think that is where he has made his biggest personal gains.”
While Rovelto believes Rodriguez will soon surpass his personal marks, he also suspects the 21-year-old to gain further national recognition with his improved skill set. That is out of mind currently for Rodriguez though, who is focused simply on his third season as a Wildcat.
“Of course I dream of the World Championships and the Olympics. That’s where I want to be some day. I would love to get to Rio in 2016, but I still have to work hard here in Manhattan. I want to win at the Big 12 Championships and I want to compete well at the NCAA Championships.”
Rodriguez does not seem to want to leave the Little Apple too soon either, noting that he plans to train for his international dreams with Coach Rovelto post-graduation.
“I do not know where I would be without Coach Rovelto and without track - if had not made the change to run. This is why I am here today and how I am getting my education. I am grateful for this opportunity and it means so much to me.”