One constant certainty for Salazar is that his Catholic faith was of primary importance to his family, for they made a huge sacrifice to prove it. Born in Cuba in 1958, Salazar grew up in the United States and not Havana was because of his father, Jose Salazar’s commitment to his Catholic faith. Che Guevara forbid the building of a chapel in a community-development project—the plans of Jose Salazar, a civil engineer. When Fidel Castro did not overturn this decision, Jose realized their orders were only the beginning, and the denial of religious freedom would follow. The Salazars fled Cuba that day.
Salazar shared, “Even though my father was in a relatively high position of power, prestige, and importance, turning his back on the Catholic Church was not worth it, so he decided to get us out of the country. Politics had been his whole life, Castro was someone he was very close to, and he was enamored of him. But that was probably the only thing he could have done that would have made my dad turn his back on him.” As he shared his father’s story, I found it hard to grasp the very same two men whose names riddle history books, and whose iconic images color our pop world had such a profound impact upon Salazar’s life. I asked Salazar is it was remotely possible for him to measure what effect his father’s decision had upon his faith. He replied by saying, “It something that impacted me and continues to impact me because it showed that he put his Catholic faith above everything else; there was nothing more important. My father’s example is something that has stuck with me all my life. Our faith is that important to him and it should have that same importance to us as well. His decision, his commitment, that risk he took for us reaffirms to me this should be the most important thing.”
For many years, his faith was not the most important thing in his life. Salazar admits, “Although I was Catholic and had a Catholic faith, for many years my focus was on running. I loved running and wanted to be the best runner in the world. I wanted to be a world record holder—that was my primary motivation.” He adds, “I went through a phase in college where I was involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the epitome of born again Christian groups, and that became much more important to me at that point in my life. I was trying to live much more of a faith filled life, but not necessarily through the Catholic Church, even though I had been going to Mass. But in the 1980s, I went with my family to Medjugorje, in what was formerly Yugoslavia, a holy place where the Blessed Mother has appeared and speaks to young people. That trip really brought me back to the Catholic Church, to the faith, where I was able to realize God’s graces in the religious tradition of my youth. I believe that the Blessed Mother is giving these messages and it’s nothing new. Her message is to do these things: pray, pray the Rosary, listen to her Son, Jesus. It’s simply to ‘do these things.’ And all of a sudden I realized ‘Wow! It’s a blueprint, she’s simply reminding us. It’s been the same message for 2000 years.’ It’s not rocket science. For me, it was an impetus to go back to the Church and to do the things the Church offers you.”
Although Salazar kept his faith in the background for most of his running career, the 53.75-mile Comrades Marathon in Durban, South Africa in 1994 served as a turning point. His experience at Medjugorje and the implementation of the Blessed Mother’s message led him to such a deeper, lived faith so much so that Salazar could identify with the words of Ryan Hall, a world class runner. Through Hall’s faith community Athletes in Action, he came to believe he was “No longer a runner who happens to be a Christian, I was a Christian who happens to run.” Salazar said, “That complete shift didn’t occur for me until 1994 when I ran an ultra marathon in South Africa. That was the first time that it was really and completely ‘I am going to do this to share my faith.’ Before that, I could not honestly say running for the Lord is the #1 reason I am doing this. Praying the Rosary got me through.” Not only did Salazar win that race, but he gave all credit to God. “It was a miracle.” he said “I should not have finished at all. The Lord did it.” His faith was now in the foreground, where it has remained and developed much like his career.
Images: Arturo Mari / Associated Press
Runner for Christ