Zudikey Rodriguez's highest hurdle
Now, she jumps.
She jumps as high as she can in order to touch the sky. To feel him again.
Mexico’s Zudikey Rodriguez Nuñez competed in the 4x400m on the track at Beijing 2008, but she'll have to wait until Tokyo 2020 to fulfil the dream of being an Olympian again. She hopes to return to the biggest sporting competition in the world but competing in a different discipline - the 400m hurdles.
“I wanted to feel how my legs lifted off the ground and feel the air. I enjoy it a lot. I’m in love with the hurdles," the athlete explained to Tokyo 2020.org.
"It is a discipline that you need to love because a 400m [event] by itself is already exhausting. Imagine raising the level of difficulty by adding 10 hurdles. The last two hurdles are always immense. They seem like a giant wall! At that moment you feel incapable of jumping over them, but the training always pays off."
The tallest hurdle
Rodriguez has experienced things that no training can prepare for. She's had to deal with higher hurdles before. In the process of swapping running for a discipline more akin to flying, she has encountered more obstacles than what you normally come up against on a running track.
But athletics has always given her wings.
"The sport has made me a stronger woman. Not only physically, but also emotionally and mentally. I am a person who doesn't give up easily. I can withstand a lot of things,” she said.
The worst experience was the loss of her son, Ethan, 11 years ago.
"That tragedy occurred when I was competing in a national championship, I think I had won four gold medals but that didn't matter, because when I heard the news my whole world collapsed.
"I didn't want to do anything. I didn't want to keep on running. What happened to my child plunged me into misery. I was in the deepest hole.
"So I gave up running. It was the most normal thing that could have happened. I didn't want to talk about it. I felt like I was going crazy for not having my son, not seeing him, not talking to him.
"We were inseparable."
But in the end, the sport that she had turned her back on helped her to move forward.
"After all of this, I think over time you learn to cope, to understand that he is not there anymore, that you have to move forward," said Rodriguez.
"My son enjoyed watching me run, he was my biggest fan. Remembering that, I said to myself, ‘Now I’m going to turn all this pain and sadness into something that lifts me up in order to give the best of myself to my son… up in heaven’."
Now, every finish line represents another way to remember Ethan.
“When I cross a finish line I point to the sky with my finger."
"Now every time I compete I want to give my all as a worthy dedication to him. That’s my motivation for running. My motivation comes from the sky.
"It’s fortunate that I returned to the sport. I could swear to you that at the beginning [following the tragedy] I couldn’t be at the track for more than five minutes. I just couldn’t. But little by little, I overcame those limitations until the pain became a part of my life and I learned to live with all of it.”
"Now I’m going to turn all this pain and sadness into something that lifts me up, in order to give the best of myself to my son."
Rodriguez’s character has also played a major part in her return.
"I’m someone who doesn't give up. I am positive. I’ve been training my mind so much that it believes what I tell it. I try to convince myself that I’m fine, that I’m going to get through this. My life has a mantra, happiness that stops me from stagnating.”
Rodriguez admits that she never feels alone. The strength she needs comes from the same place she points to when she finishes a race.
"Who knows where my strength comes from. I don't understand it either. I only think about him always being with me. When I am sad, I understand that sadness, but I don't allow it to get inside me."
"I allow myself to feel the pain, but not to be sad all the time"
"I allowed myself to feel that pain constantly for two years. At that time, I was like a robot: I went to school, I trained... I did a lot of things so I didn’t have to think. And I didn't enjoy what I was doing. But little by little I started to enjoy everything again."
"I started to not feel the burden of ‘I have to be sad because my son’s not with me'. I understood that he’ll never be here again. But mentally, I am stable because I know that somehow he is with me. I need to be fine because that means that he - wherever he is - will be fine as well. That’s the motivation I have, to take on whatever comes my way."
"Now I believe, the worst has already happened. What could be next? Whatever comes next, it will be less painful. That makes me stronger and stronger every day. He makes me stronger and is with me all the time - in every happy moment, in every sad moment, with every step I take, in every competition. That’s why I got through this.”
"The worst has happened. What could be next?
Whatever comes next, it will be less painful."
Her hopes for Tokyo
Drawing upon her newfound strength, Rodriguez is aiming for Tokyo 2020.
“I’ve had a 21-year athletics career and it hasn’t been easy. My loss isn’t the only thing that has set me back. Every year I’ve had injuries. However, I have pulled myself up and now I am still motivated to get my place at the Olympics,” she told Tokyo 2020.org.
Right now, the athlete is recovering from a fracture in her fibula, so the postponement of the Games has given her more time to qualify for the Games starting in July 2021, and be in better shape.
Rodriguez said that Beijing 2008 changed her life for the better. Now she has another year to change again - in a different way.
With the hope that this time, she can point to the sky having jumped over her highest hurdle.