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Against the Odds: Nery Brenes

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Nery Brenes struggled for years to get the funding to race professionally

The BBC's Against the Odds series profiles athletes heading to the Olympics despite huge obstacles.

In Costa Rica, Claire Marshall met a young sprinter from a port town consumed by gang violence.

Nery Brenes has the Olympic hopes of a nation resting on his shoulders, and he is just 22 years old.

In August, he will represent Costa Rica in the 400 metres in Beijing.

According to his coach, Walter Salazar, he's the best athlete ever to have come from the country.

Nery was born in the impoverished port town of Limon, on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast.

Nery Brenes
Ranked between 12 and 15 in the world
Best time: 45.01 in 2007 (World record 43.18)
In action: 18th August, Olympic 400m Round 1
It is a town being consumed by gang violence. Around 30 people have been killed there so far this year.

Walking beneath the huge trees of Limon's tattered central square, he told the BBC: "Right now this town is going through a difficult time.

"There are a lot of deaths. Young kids killing young kids. There is a lot of drugs. So I'm just trying to be like someone that they can see improving life.

"What's that Liverpool song - 'You'll never walk alone?' I want kids to feel that from me - that they have someone who can be their support."

Long road to success

Nery struggled for years to get the funding to race professionally.

Nery in training
Nery struggled for years to get the funding to make the best of his talent
He almost gave up the sport so he could get a job to support his family.

The government finally stepped in to give him a grant, and now he has several private sponsors.

"It's so hard here. To get money, you need to be a superstar or something", he said.

When Nery came fourth in the World Indoor Championships in Valencia in March this year, he gave his $8,000 prize money to deprived families from Limon.

"Along with being world champion, and to help my family, my dream is to build a school here for poor children", he said.

'He ran everywhere'

Laughter spills out from the single story house in a humble suburb of Limon as Nery play wrestles with one of his young cousins.

When people got to know where I practised; where I'm from, they were like, 'He's got talent'. I was like the new kid on the block
Nery Brenes
Five generations live under the same roof. Nery introduces his great grandmother, Ofilia, 97; his grand mother Roslin, 72, and his mother Maidela, 37.

Maidela looks at her son with intense pride, as her crochet needles move quickly in her hands.

"He learned to run quickly. He ran everywhere; inside, outside, in the street. My mother always says leave him - don't stop him, don't discourage him - leave him and stand aside - even if you're left behind.

"Now, he's an idol for the kids here".

Nery kisses his mother softly on the cheek. He says that he calls her three times a day.

"We are a united family", he says. "That's why things are always going right and things are always coming through."

Run-down athletics track

Nery now trains full time in the Costa Rican capital, San Jose.

Nery on his old running track
Good memories: Nery's old running track is now overgrown

He returns to visit the run-down sports centre in Limon where he trained for 9 years.

It is difficult to see where the running track is; it is covered in grass and rocks, and some barefoot children are playing football at one end.

Walking slowly around it, he murmurs that the place holds good memories for him.

"This is where I first started practising when I was 12-years-old. It was so hard. I had a lot of injuries. But then I went to Osaka last year and I ran 45.01 and people were like, 'Who is this guy?'

"When people got to know where I practised; where I'm from, they were like, 'He's got talent'. I was like the new kid on the block."

His coach, Walter Salazar, says that Nery is shorter and lighter than most 400m runners but says he has "one of the fastest finishing kicks in the world".

Gruelling sprint regime

Since he spotted his talent five years ago, Walter has taken charge of Nery's training programme.

Ronald Velasquez carries his front door that was swept away when heavy rains from Tropical Storm Alma caused flooding in Parrita, Costa Rica, Friday, May 30, 2008
Costa Rica suffered recent flooding after a tropical storm
In the run up to the Olympics, he makes him practise two or three times a day, every day of the week.

With his Olympic test just around the corner, three of these sessions are a gruelling series of 12 100 metre sprints, with a break of less than two minutes between each one.

Nery sears down his final 100 metre sprint in 10.4 seconds. His average time is about 11.4 seconds.

His chest heaves to suck in air, and he pours water over the back of his head as he squats down on the track.

Walter places his hand on his neck to check his pulse.

He is pleased. "That's the best training session we've had", he said. "Well done. Very consistent. That's what we're looking for."

As for how well Nery can expect to do in the Olympics, Walter refuses to speculate.

He says: "He's in very good shape. We hope for the best, but you know, anything can happen. We don't think too much about the future, just about today, to have him free from injury and with motivation and concentration."

Nery is clear about his own personal goal.

"I don't think, I AM going to be World Champion. I'm going to work hard for that. I know it's a long road... But I'm going to come through."


Here are a selection of your comments on this story:

I am also from Puerto Limón. I practiced sport in the same place. Not easy at all! You are great and I am proud of you. I wish you great success. Is going to be a very intense period for you, your coach, your family and people from Puerto Limón. God bless you! Te adoramos Nery y eres nuestro orgullo. Limonense soy donde quiera que voy!
Elieth Coto, Switzerland & Costa Rica

We've all followed closely Nery's advances. And yes, he's for real. Hard working young man from a very poor town. Even the sponsorship he has achieved is already a milestone, because that's hard in our country. All costa ricans are very proud of him and wish him the best.
Laura Serrano, San Jose, Costa Rica

Just keep on boy! I strongly believe that You will be the Olympic winner this year! You give us a great example to imitate.
Boris, Novosibirsk, Russia

This is a very inspirational story. We're so lucky to be fortunate and we do not have to think twice about our next meal or the condition of our home. It is truly remarkable that Mr. Brenes donated his money without even thinking twice. The story of Nery Brenes has deeply affected us and we wish him the best of luck in Beijing and we will surely be cheering for him!
Srimoyee and Swati Chakrabory, Ledgewood, USA

What can i say? He who gives never lack, may you never lack. You are a winner already, may your goal be accomplished and your dream come true, you just say a big AMEN.
Safuriyawu Ahmed, Abuja Nigeria

Nery is an inspiration for us Ticos. He shows character of strength that is unusual for people from his town, or from anybody on the country for that matter. The whole country vouches for him. Go NERY!
Alejandro Miranda, San Jose, Costa Rica

I feel so grateful to hear these story i myself am from central America Honduras and to me he's already a champion even if we don't come from the same country i can say estoy muy orgulloso de ti N ery Brenes you truly represent the struggles of all Central American athletes go through God bless you!and bring home the gold and make all central America proud!.
Oscar Bustillo, Houston TX, USA

I watched Nery Brenes on BBC news this morning and thought what an awesome story, what an inspiring athlete - if only I could tell him how proud I was! I take my hat off to his devotion & commitment to his sport and his people. It is said that modelling is one leadership practice we have no choice about. We set an example every moment of the day whether we want to or not and what a great model Nery is. You have my blessings Nery, you are an over achiever and remain refreshingly inspiring. Continue to transform people's lives & live the dream! God's plans in your life is beginning to unfold as this is your season!
Eddie Sukanaivalu, Suva, Fiji

Thank you for this heart warming article. Costa Rica is a beautiful and friendly country. I join them in cheering Nery on to Olympic Gold. What an incredible young man he is!
Suzanne Green, Dallas, TX USA

As a Costa Rican living in exile, I hope Nery knows how proud some of his fellow Ticos and Ticas are, of both his athletic accomplishment and his person. His story is inspiring both because of his constant athletic effort as a child in Limon, but also because of his dedication to his home town. Buena suerte! BBC, thanks for sharing this story with the world.
Estela, Los Angeles, USA

Unlike several recent examples, including some high profile ones from my own country (weightlifting-swimming), this guy stands out as an example of what the Olympic spirit should inspire athletes to behave like and aim for..better their lives through fair excellence in sport..I wish him (already a winner) every success in the Games
George Triantos, Athens Greece

This is what the Olympics is all about, it's not the runners with a team of trainers, agents and marketing team and corporate sponsors behind them that the average people are routing for or necessarily want to see. It stories like this, an impoverish runner with one big dream, that makes the Olympics what it is.
Jeffrey Williams, London

As a person from a poor, violence-prone tropical country, I wish Nery all the best. He reminds me of our world-famous cricketers who grow up playing with makeshift bats and tape balls on rocky paths and beaches.
Anthony, Colombo, Sri Lanka

Its inspiring to see a 22 year old so into empowering the children in his home town. He's heart has won me over considering he gave all his winnings to a charity just shows what kind of person he is, when you consider how many generations live in one house it would have been easier for him to help only his own family. I wish him all the best in his career
Eric Anunda, Aberdeen

Stories like this are very humbling to us in wealthy countries where people don't need to struggle against the odds. I wish Nery all the very best......may you win!
Katie Sabry, limassol , cyprus

He is already a champion! What a great person with such a big heart. I hope he wins a medal at the Olympics. Go Nery Brenes!!!
Tom Tong, Santa Cruz, CA USA

This is a true inspiring story, he is a success, once upon a time Arthur Ashe said "From what we get, we can make a living; what we give, however, makes a life"... This guy knows what to overcome the odd means, and money does not mean nothing to him. He is true success. God bless him and hope he inspires more under-privileged kids! give them hope
Stella, Minnesota, USA

Great story. As a keen athletics follower, I can only wish Nery well in Beijing. He deserves full support in Costa Rica (and from elsewhere). I know Puerto Limon well and to come from there to run the times he has done is absolutely remarkable. May his dedication and his dreams be rewarded.
John Chapman, Sénas, France (currently in Mexico D.F)

I would like for this young man to know he has shown great ambtion, spirit and a will to win, to survive hardship. He should come to London, all over England. He should be paid to tell his story to teenager's in school and inner cities. Manchester, Liverpool and London need a beacon of hope.
Rudolph Jones, London, Enfield

Chamo, felicitaciones y los mejores deseos desde Trinidad y Tobago. Corre como el viento, y Dios te bendiga. (Man, congratulations and best wishes from Trinidad and Tobago. Run like the wind, and God bless you!)
Austin Agho, Trinidad and Tobago

Good Luck, keep working hard, anything you set out to do you can accomplish. I enjoyed reading your story! I'm glad you are close to your Mother and family. If my son were still living he would also be 22 years old. My prayers and heart go out to you and your family that you will accomplish your goals and dreams. Never give up!
Linda, USA

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