• Sponsors BannerWorld Athletics Partner
  • Sponsors BannerWorld Athletics Partner
  • Sponsors BannerWorld Athletics Partner
  • Sponsors BannerWorld Athletics Media Partner
  • Sponsors BannerWorld Athletics Supplier
  • Sponsors BannerWorld Athletics Supplier
  • Sponsors BannerWorld Athletics Supplier

Feature24 Jul 2022

Grijalva, a 'dreamer' full of dreams


Luis Grijalva at the World Athletics Championships Oregon22 (© AFP/Getty Images)

There are sayings that are so overused, we tend to employ them sparingly, so they don’t lose their meaning. 

However, rarely has the phrase “athletics changed my life” been as true as when spoken by Guatemalan distance runner Luis Grijalva.

Born in Guatemala, Grijalva moved to Fairfield, California, with his parents and two older brothers in 2000, when he was only one year old.

An undocumented immigrant at the time, Grijalva is now under the protection of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme, an immigration policy launched in 2012 by former US President Barack Obama that allows some individuals who arrived in the United States unlawfully as children to stay and avoid deportation. Immigrants protected under DACA are commonly referred to as “dreamers”.

“It basically allows me to stay in the United States,” Grijalva explains. “I can get a driver’s license, I can work, but I can’t apply for citizenship and it’s extremely difficult to leave the country.

“If I want to go abroad, I need to apply for a permit six months in advance and I need to have a legit reason for it. I can’t just go somewhere because I feel like it. Also, it can never be for a long period of time. And if I leave the country without permission, I am not allowed to return for a period of 10 years.”

For Grijalva, who is trying to build an international athletics career, those are just another set of barriers he's grown accustomed to since he took up running.

Sport provides direction

“I don’t come from a family of runners at all,” explains Grijalva. “When we moved to the United States, my parents were so busy trying to make a living that my brothers and I were sometimes left on our own.”

“Unfortunately, my brothers got involved in a lot of gang violence, they got sent to jail, and they ended up being deported back to Guatemala when I was 13. I haven’t seen them since then.”

Coincidentally or not, that was when Grijalva started to take running seriously.

“I remember always making the top-three of every race I was entering at the time, and, during my junior year of high school, I started to win a few national races, which led me to think I could maybe run at collegiate level.”

Coming from a modest family, Grijalva knew he absolutely needed a full scholarship to afford his dream. One day, he received a visit from Mike Smith, a coach from Northern Arizona University, whose approach to running convinced Grijalva the school was the best option for him. 

“He came to my parents’ house and promised to take care of me outside of running, and it resonated with me.”

Until that point, perhaps without him even realising it, running had pushed Grijalva in the right direction.

“It’s actually incredible to be part of an athletics team,” Grijalva said. “Because you meet so many people pursuing the same goal and who share the same passion. We all want to achieve success, and, at the time, I was with people who were the total opposite of this.”

Not to mention the education the university provided him, Grijalva feels thankful for everything the sport is about. “Being with each other, standing up for the right things, feeling challenged, everything about being part of an athletics team makes you a better runner, but also a better person.

“Being invested in other people brings out the best in you. I am thankful for all the friendships and memories I have created along the way.”

A last-minute Olympic dream

Upon graduating from Northern Arizona University, Grijalva signed a professional contract with the Hoka and remained in Flagstaff, Arizona, to continue working with Smith.  

On 11 June 2021, he clocked 13:13.14 over 5000m at the NCAA Championships to meet the Olympic qualifying standard just a week-and-a-half before the qualification window closed.

“I knew it was theoretically too late to apply for a permit to leave the country and go to Tokyo, but going to the Olympics was a childhood dream, so I decided to give it a try,” Grijalva says.

“Mike and I hired an immigration lawyer on 1 July, we submitted all the paperwork, and we decided to use the media to leverage my story.

“And it blew up,” remembers Grijalva. “Suddenly I was receiving calls to appear on NPR or Good Morning America, it was crazy. And it gave me the opportunity to educate people on what the DACA status is about.”

The strategy seemed to work.

On 25 July, Grijalva received his permit to exit the United States. He flew to Tokyo on 28 July and two days later qualified for the Olympic final after finishing 10th in his heat in 13:34.11. He went on to finish 12th in the final, lowering his own national record to 13:10.09. Definitely worth the hassle.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Luis Grijalva (@luisgrijalva_)

A head full of dreams 

“If you exclude the first year of my life, Tokyo was my first time outside of the United States, but also the first time I was competing against so many athletes from so many different nations,” says Grijalva.

“They race differently and more aggressively than American athletes, who are usually scared to go with the pace. It made me hungry for more.” 

Earlier this season, Grijalva competed at both the Oslo and the Stockholm legs of the Wanda Diamond League to gain experience ahead of the World Athletics Championships Oregon22

“We actually started the whole same process back in March and got the final confirmation only a few days before our flights.”

In Oslo, Grijalva placed 11th in the 5000m with 13:18.13 and a week later set a national 3000m record in Stockholm clocking 7:38.67.

“Well yeah, I didn’t fly 10 hours to jog and see how I felt,” explains Grijalva. “I was there to compete to the best I could.”

“The simple fact of seeing a Guatemalan flag next to my name at these big events meant so much,” adds Grijalva. “I am super proud that I got to represent my country next to dominant distance running nations like Ethiopia, Kenya, or the USA."

“I am feeling hungry for the World Championships now,” Grijalva said after his race in Stockholm. ”I’m fortunate that they are happening in the United States this year, so I don’t have to go through the same process again. Making it into the final would be huge. And if I could make it into the top 10 in the world…” 

He’s on his way. Three days ago he finished third in his opening round heat in 13:14.04 to advance to Suday’s final. 

“From where I come from, it’s pretty special,” Grijalva says.

The race starts at 18:05 local time (GMT-7), the evening’s first final on the track. When the time comes, dreamers may wish dreams come true.

Laurent Dieste for World Athletics 

Pages related to this article