Kevin Ramirez: From Medalist to Coach

 

Now that the annual Justas LAI have drawn to a close, let’s take a look into a former colegio athlete that continues to leave his mark in the competition. Kevin J. Ramirez Quiñones is a 25-year-old UPRM graduate who won two silver medals during his years as a pole vault competitor. The Aguada native graduated in 2018 with a degree in kinesiology and a preparation on education. While taking the last classes required to continue his studies in Chiropractic in Palmer University in Orlando Florida, Ramirez now works in UPRM as the pole vault coach to the current competing athletes. After he accomplished his goals in his own athletic career in UPRM, Ramirez realized he had an opportunity to help others do the same. But before he could become their coach, he was a student athlete. I sat down with Ramirez to talk about his achievements as an athlete, the balance of life as a student, the transition into coaching and everything in between.

Ramirez has been doing sports his entire life but his UPRM athletic career began with him as a long-distance jump athlete. He describes himself as not being the worst but also, not really in competition with his colleagues. His first year he didn’t make the team and began feeling defeated. During his third year in the university, his coach advised him to join the pole vault team. Although he saw no real future for himself, Ramirez agreed to try it out, in spite of all the technicalities he believed he was not prepared to overcome. He was pleasantly surprised to realize he had a talent in the sport and made the UPRM team. That same year, in December, he won his first silver medal in the first competitions of the season. This victory motivated Ramirez and he began to focus more in the sport.

Photo Credit: Luis D. Sanchez

In 2018, Ramirez really had no intention of becoming coach since he was on track towards the Central-American Games. While he was training, he returned to the tracks to speak to his old coach but found out he had left the position. His former teammates asked for his help since they had spent a few weeks without proper training. Ramirez gladly gave them a list of exercises to keep themselves up while the department could find a replacement for their former coach. Eventually, the head of the athletics department reach out to Ramirez and officially offered him the job as coach after he had been recommended by the athletes themselves. “I was apprehensive at first,” said Ramirez about the job offer, “it’s one thing to help them out here and there but another completely to be in charge of their training.” He said yes amidst the pressure brought on by the team and the department. Thankfully, he received help from the department of kinesiology from which he eventually graduated as well as from coaches from other universities.

During his first year as coach, Ramirez believes he was successful. One of his male athletes won a bronze medal and he had begun training a female athlete who was starting out from zero like he did and placed in the top 10. Nevertheless, there were still many difficulties to overcome. Ramirez began working as the coach while he was still a student. He was also doing his practice as a part of the education preparation program and had a job as a waiter. He had to juggle all of these responsibilities while training for the Central-American Games. It was a lot to handle and he was almost ready to give up but continued because of his dedication to his athletes.

The transition from athlete to coach was tough to say the least. “The first time I was sweating,” said Ramirez “I wanted to be right there with him and tell him exactly what to do.” As a coach, there’s a double pressure because, if your athlete fails, you fail. The coach is forced to wonder what they did wrong and what they should have done differently. As an athlete, it’s a different experience. According to Ramirez, “you compete, have fun, win and celebrate,” he said, but the coach, win or lose, always has to wonder how the athlete can improve. After every competition, he sits down and writes all the ways he and his athletes can improve and sets goals for the next competition so that they can come out stronger and better.

Photo Credit: Huella Deportiva

From the training to the competitive mindset, as a coach, Ramirez has a greater understanding of all the directions given to him by his own coaches. He uses this newfound understanding and his background in education to help transmit his teachings to his athletes. He believes his patience and attention to detail allow him to coach his athletes into execute their routines in the most optimal manner. Ramirez tries to teach them the roots so that they can have their own independent knowledge of the sport and the training they are receiving. He wants them to know the sport so well that the can question their training and seek out what is best for them; not follow blindly and simply do as they are told. Ramirez tries to teach his athletes discipline, respect, dedication and responsibility, not only within the sport, but also in their own lives.

For this sport, the most important techniques are strength, speed and body-control. The basis of the pole vault is gymnastics. The athlete is 15 feet in the air and has to turn their body in one movement which requires acute control of the body. According to Ramirez, there are a few common mistakes that these athletes make due to what he believes to be lack of visualization. The final phase of the jump is the turn and many athletes don’t execute this well. There are also some issues due to the equipment, or lack thereof. The sport requires a pole which, sadly, is difficult equipment to come by in the island since it is not a popular sport.

Ramirez developed his sport in two and a half years. Now, he sees how the athletes lack the determination necessary to follow through in their sports and reach greater levels of success. They train once a day when, at college level, it should be done twice or three times a day. Many of them have jobs or simply spend their time going out. The team itself often plays a part in the athlete’s encouragement, or lack thereof. Lastly but most importantly, the mind is what really carries the athlete to success or to failure. “You have to be crazy,” said Ramirez, “you have to run, jump 15, 16, 17 feet in the air and fall on a mattress. If your mind isn’t strong, you won’t be able to do it.”

Photo Credit: Luis D. Sanchez

This year, the University of Puerto Rico has cut funding to its athletic programs. Right now, the university covers half the tuition for some of its athletes along with housing and dietary stipends, but this could all be taken away next semester. Ramirez believes that this will cause many athletes to leave their sports in the university. “Not everybody lives off of ‘thank you’,” said Ramirez, "they play their sport because of they need the help from the institution." He believes the higher ups are attacking and area they shouldn’t. Many athletes use sports as an escape and to take away this part of their lives will significantly affect them and their education even more. “They don’t have money to help the athletes, for the facilities or for the equipment necessary," said Ramirez, “they are going to eliminate sports from the UPR system.”

For his team, Ramirez has to decide which two athletes get the university’s economic support and who does not. The track and field coaches had a four-hour meeting to decide who would get the help they all desperately need. The track and field team, as a whole, usually takes 90 athletes to competition. This year, only 43 athletes, less than half the competing population, were given exemption from half of the cost of their tuition. Students who were among the top-ranking athletes in the LAI were left without help giving space for other universities to poach them from the UPRM teams.    

Sports are important, not only to the athletes, but also to the entire student body. Nothing brings together a community like rooting for the same team. Ramirez saw this first hand in his first Justas LAI. He came in last place, but as he walked in front of the stands where the UPRM was sitting they screamed and rooted for him. This was a completely unexpected reaction but nevertheless, they saw what he was doing, and they respected him for it. Win or lose, the UPRM will always show up and show out for its athletes. That pride is something that doesn’t come easy, therefore it should be respected and protected.