Being an Olympic athlete and having his picture plastered on posters would probably fill most 22-year-olds with a healthy dose of confidence, if not arrogance.
But Diego Estrada, a distance runner who will be competing for Mexico at this summer’s Olympic Games in London, maintains a sense of humility and perspective, thanks to his deep Catholic faith.
“Catholicism and Christianity is a big part of my daily life. I wake up with prayer. I go to bed with prayer. Before a race, I pray. All around, it’s a big part of my life,” Estrada said in a recent phone interview.
“I was born to Catholic parents in Mexico. We’re very Catholic. From day one, attending Mass, being Catholic was important,” he said.
Estrada, a four-time All-American student athlete at Northern Arizona University, will run the 10,000 meters for Mexico.
“Once they left their home country, it was no return. They risked it all. Something I’ll never forget is that it was my parents’ dream for their children to have a higher education, a better life and not to do any manual labor,” said Estrada, who became a permanent U.S. resident in 2000 and a citizen in November 2011.
Estrada said he had wanted to represent his adopted country in the Olympics, but added that he had been given false information about not being eligible to run in this year’s U.S. Olympic trials.
“I have two countries, and I love them both very much. Emotionally, they’re both really special to me, but going to the Olympics and representing Mexico is something I think my parents can relate to more. I feel going to the Olympics is more of a gift for my parents — as a way of thanking them for the sacrifices they made for me when I was a kid,” Estrada said.
The Catholic faith has been extremely important for Estrada ever since his parents baptized him in their hometown in Michoacán, Mexico. A few months later, the family — he has four siblings — immigrated to Salinas, Calif., where he received his first Communion at age 11.
Shortly after arriving on Northern Arizona University’s campus in Flagstaff, Estrada met a missionary from the Fellowship of Catholic University Students who helped him form a Bible study for other track athletes and students.
Father Matthew Lowry, the Catholic chaplain at Northern Arizona University, remembered urging Estrada to join a Bible study.
“He said, ‘Father, I don’t want to be in one. I want to lead one,’” Father Lowry said.
“That showed he’s a natural leader. God gave him that gift.”
Estrada’s weekly Bible study meets Wednesday nights at his apartment.
“We open up with prayer; then we start with a reading. We’ll read a chapter or two from the Gospel; then we reflect. We try to connect the teachings of the Bible to things we can relate to as athletes, like perseverance, having faith and keeping going. We share our thoughts, and then we close with prayer,” Estrada said.
Strength in Faith
The Bible study and fellowship also serves as a needed respite from his intense training regimen.
“For me, I’m 24/7 busy. I’m either training, eating or sleeping. For me, the Bible study on Wednesdays is a mental break to refocus and give some time to God and humble myself,” Estrada said.
“It’s a way of finding motivation, tranquility and peace of mind being around fellow Christians and Catholic students. It’s just helped solidify my foundation,” said Estrada, who wears a Miraculous Medal.
He also has a devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe. “Being Mexican, we have a strong place for her in our hearts. When we’re in trouble, she’s our route to Jesus, you can say,” Estrada added.
Father Lowry said he has seen the impact of Estrada’s faith life on him and his teammates.
“I’ve noticed more track team members coming to Mass,” Father Lowry said, adding that Estrada would often make an appointment for confession before going out of town for a track meet.
“Diego lives the faith, and he’s not afraid to talk about it. It’s his faith that helps him stay grounded and keep perspective. He still has a sense of gratitude for everything he has.”
“You meet him, and you would never know that he’s a world-class runner,” Father Lowry added.
Estrada’s accomplishments at Northern Arizona since 2009 testify to his God-given running abilities: four All-American awards, at least four Big Sky individual titles and conference records in the 3,000- and 5,000-meter races.
At Alisa High School, Estrada was a two-time California regional champion and a three-time state qualifier in cross country. Northern Arizona cross country coach Eric Heins, who is also the university’s track and field director, recruited Estrada.
“The way he ran, he looked very effective. I thought he had something,” said Heins, who saw Estrada mature from a “gung ho” freshmen who ran too hard in practices to a seasoned athlete who learned to properly train and pace himself.
“One of the strengths he’s developed is that he’s extremely strong. He can get onto a good pace and push through some pain. He’s able to handle an enormous amount of pain. That may be his biggest strength,” Heins said.
Whenever pain or some other obstacle presents itself, Estrada said he reflects on one of his favorite Scripture verses.
“Matthew 17:20 tells us that if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move mountains. So whenever I think I can’t do something, I always go to that Bible verse, and I get some strength from that,” Estrada said.
Sharing the Faith
Heins added that Estrada’s work ethic is “second to none.”
“He’s willing to do what it takes to push himself. I was overwhelmed with joy for the kid when he qualified for the Olympics. I almost started shedding a tear. It’s something he worked so hard for the past four years,” said Heins, who will travel to London to support Estrada in person.
Estrada said he began running his freshman year of high school. He waved away questions about when he realized that he had world-class ability.
“I never thought about having a special talent. It was just something growing up and having a desire to win races. It was just going out there and running. I’ve never gone out and thought, I’m talented. It’s not something that goes through my mind,” Estrada said.
Father Lowry said he believes Estrada’s faith prevents him from thinking too much about himself.
“He’s humble, down-to-earth and loves his family,” Father Lowry said.
Estrada is majoring in secondary education and plans to be a teacher and track and field coach. He has also not ruled out becoming a Focus missionary, though his current training schedule precludes that for now.
“I try to be a missionary in my own way,” he said.
Father Lowry noted that Estrada will soon have the opportunity to share his faith with many Olympic athletes in London.
“He’ll be meeting and influencing athletes from across the world,” Father Lowry said. “I’m very happy for him. It couldn’t have happened to a better guy.”
Brian Fraga writes from El Paso, Texas.