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Gators at Olympics: Andres Arroyo representing Puerto Rico

Noah Ram
Special to The Sun
Poland's Adam Kszczot, right, Kenya's Ferguson Rotich, center, and Puerto Rico's Andres Arroyo, left, competes in a men's 800-meter heat during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, Aug. 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

In 2016, Andres Arroyo arrived in Rio de Janeiro to experience a moment he waited his whole life for.

“The experience was surreal,” Arroyo said regarding his time in Rio. “You work so hard to reach this moment, and you step on that line with thousands screaming at you, it is like dreaming.”

With the weight of his home nation on his back, Arroyo made history in Rio and became the first Puerto Rican to reach the semifinals of the 800-meter run.

“It really didn’t hit me until I got to the (Olympic) Village and saw my uniform,” he said. “Plus being able to hang out with athletes in the village and to explore Rio was incredible. I even stayed a week after.”

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Five years later, Arroyo, who finished a storied career at Florida in 2017, returns to track’s biggest stage, with all the privileges from Rio taken away.

No hollering fans, no touring Japan’s capital, and no casual mingling of participants in the village.

Arroyo, who will suit up in the 800m again, said he’s disappointed by how unusual these COVID-19 games are.

“It’s a bummer,” Arroyo said. “Specially to travel to Japan, which has always been in my bucket list, and not be able to see it.”

He said athletes cannot leave the Olympic Village. The only place for athletes to spend time together is the game room, where they must wear masks.

The former All-American spent time in Finland at a training camp before heading to Japan.

He landed in Tokyo last Friday. He must stay in the airport until he receives a negative test. In the village, all athletes get tested daily.

Due to the mountain of constraints, Arroyo doubts Tokyo will bring the same level of fun Rio did.

“I am thinking about my family first,” he said. “I’m going just to run and get out. I don’t expect to have fun.”

He said the IOC put this setup in place intentionally, which should help reduce the likelihood of an outbreak.

Despite the restraints, Arroyo said he always planned on attending the games and, overall, thinks the IOC is handling the dilemma as well as possible.

“We all want to be with our families and keep them safe,” he said. “With the situation that is going on, we want to get back home safely, so I think their plan is perfect. I don’t have any bad thoughts. It is what it is.”

On the track, the former SEC and World Champion said his experience gives him an advantage over his fellow competitors in the 800m. He added Florida coach Mike Holloway provided him advice that has proved invaluable, telling him ‘It’s just like any other meet.’

“He said, ‘you worked so hard to get to this moment, show them you belong,’” he said. “All those days of dieting and waking up early prepared you for this.”

He finished seventh in the semifinals and 22nd of 58 overall in 2016. Arroyo said the performance increased his confidence and motivation level.

“Once I reached that goal, I was a completely different person,” he said. “I wanted to have that feeling again, so when the next Olympics come, I want to do great in those games as well.”

Arroyo said he idealized Roberto Clemente growing up. The iconic Puerto Rican baseball player played for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955 to 1972, and Arroyo strives to bestow a similar effect on others.

As a titleholder himself now, Arroyo serves a role model for runners back home in Puerto Rico.

It ranks as an important responsibility and one he knows carries much weight.

“I am where I am today because of the environment I had in Puerto Rico, Orlando and Gainesville,” he said. “Those same tools are available to kids today, and if I can do it, so can they.”

The preliminaries for the men’s 800m begin July 30 from the Japan National Stadium. The finals occur five days later Aug. 4.