Running as the Only Minority on the Start Line

Stephanie Garcia and other competitors race around a track

I didn’t notice I was the only Hispanic runner in most of my races until suddenly I wasn’t. But that didn’t happen until my second year of college, at the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships. Kansas State steeplechaser Beverly Ramos, now a New Balance athlete who represents Puerto Rico in international events, made the steeplechase final that year and I didn’t.

While I was heartbroken for my own missed opportunity, I was intrigued to see another athlete who looked like me lining up for the final. I was shocked to realize how much she (and, most likely, I) stood out amongst the competitors.

But in hindsight, it hit me: throughout high school, collegiate and even professional track and cross-country, my teams were racially homogeneous. It wasn’t until college that I had Black teammates. But there were never other Latino athletes.

My class at Virginia was made up of several White girls, one Black girl and me. For most of college, people weren’t sure what my ethnicity was before hearing my last name. The most common guess was “White Asian.”

Steph Garcia smiles in a New Balance top

Growing up Hispanic in a mostly White community

Growing up, running wasn’t part of my culture, but it was part of my DNA. I was born in Austin, Texas, and spent much of my formative years around my extended family in Texas and Florida. Both of my parents are fully Hispanic and my entire family, with the exception of my brothers and I, speak fluent Spanish.

But the community my family lived in was primarily populated by Caucasian families, so most of my classmates and neighborhood friends were White. I joined the swim team in kindergarten and took ballet. Whenever we spent time with family, we drove south, closer to the Mexican border, to smaller towns that had larger Hispanic and Latino populations.

I didn’t think anything of the social or cultural differences between my extended family and the families of my school friends until my parents moved us to Northern Virginia, a place that was more culturally diverse, with large populations of Asian and South Asian communities, but where we knew essentially no other Hispanic families.

Then, my parents stopped speaking in Spanish at home because we were no longer an active part of a Hispanic community; I didn’t get a “Quinceañera,” which is a religious and social celebration for a girl turning 15. Instead, I tried playing soccer and lacrosse and kept swimming.

Participating in sports as I grew older was an oddity amongst the girls in my extended family-- as fate would have it, many of my cousins grew up, started having families of their own before or immediately after finishing high school, joining the workforce while maybe taking college classes at night. The opportunities to participate in sport dwindled in their new lives.

We were a sports-loving family but that really only extended to Dallas Cowboys games during football season. I had cousins who were competitive cheerleaders and others who played softball (I tried both and wasn’t particularly adept at either. One softball season, I was so nervous about swinging and missing a pitch that I just never swung at all!).

Finding my place as a runner

Which brings us back to running: the only Hispanic woman I knew who had any knowledge of running and track happened to be my mother, who spent her high school years participating in athletics. In her small Florida town, she was one of two girls on the track team. She competed in the distance events while her teammate did the hurdles, jumps and sprints.

She held the mile and two-mile school records for decades, mostly because no other women were interested in running. When I was younger, she would take me and my brothers to a local track and run laps; with her encouragement and example, I would diligently run laps as well, relishing the freedom I felt when running.

I had a knack for running. I won “races” in elementary school and was selected to compete in a mile race every year in middle school. When some of my friends encouraged me to join the high school cross-country team, I obliged, mostly because I missed the sign up date for cheer camp. I found success, qualifying for States on the track as the only freshman on the 4 by 800-meter relay team (the other three legs were the senior captains).

I loved competing both on the track and cross-country fields and was decent enough that a few schools reached out to recruit me. I had no idea what I was doing throughout that process-- mainly because my family had never experienced collegiate level athletics, let alone at the Division I level.

I was offered a “recruited walk-on” spot at the University of Virginia and jumped at the opportunity, especially as I had fallen in love with UVA and was accepted via Early Decision. The rest is history. I earned a full scholarship, won a few conference titles, finished NCAA runner-up in the steeple and competed in the 2011 World Championships before getting my sponsorship with New Balance and turning pro.

There was a time, early in my professional career, that I almost felt embarrassed to be the only Hispanic girl on a starting line.

The name “Garcia” felt cringe-worthy because it was so different and I even felt otherworldly in my body. It didn’t have the same muscle patterns and structure as the top women in the U.S.

When I would write freelance articles as a journalism student, I tried to drop the name “Garcia” from my byline because I felt disconnected from my heritage after years of living in a mostly-White community and attending a university with an extremely low percentage of Hispanic students. If I could have done that with my race bibs, I’m sure I would have tried!

Growing diversity on the start line

Then I started racing internationally more consistently and suddenly, I wasn’t the only brown-skinned girl on a starting line. In Diamond League races, there are so many different races and ethnicities from all over the world squeezed into one line across the track. In the 2015 World Championship final, my brown hair and brown skin was actually part of the majority among athletes in the race.

As part of Team New Balance, I have the privilege of racing alongside Brenda Martinez, an incredible Latina who has global medals and Olympic appearances on her long running resume.

And I remember when I first started noticing a different subset of fans cheering my name. When anyone Hispanic or Latino in the crowd would see the name on my race bib, their face would light up and they’d yell out my name with a flourish: “Garcia!” They pronounced it the same way my family would pronounce it.

When meeting younger athletes, I started noticing how brown-skinned girls and boys would look at me with a different kind of curiosity-- recognizing their own bodies in mine, noticing my name was one they’d heard before, in their own ethnic and cultural communities.

It gave me confidence and a renewed sense of purpose: I want these young athletes to have an example competing at the highest level that truly looks like them. I want them to know that I, too, was raised on tamales and arroz con pollo. I want them to know that my family didn’t really know much about running culture or how to support me on race day or during an injury.

But what I don’t want them to experience is how isolating it sometimes feels being the only Hispanic or Latino athlete on a starting line-- how it sometimes can make you question your self-worth or your abilities, wondering why everyone looks one way and you look another.

Instead, I want these young athletes to have that awesome sense of global community that I have when standing on an international starting line: with runners coming from all kinds of backgrounds and cultures and languages, every single one of them looking different-- so that “different” becomes the norm.

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