More than a year after promising Boston schools Athletic Director Ken Still that he would win a state championship if Still revived the city’s defunct cross country program for the 2003-04 school year, Ruben Sanca huddled underneath a bridge where the homeless slept in Franklin Park. The lone city representative in Division 2 EMass cross country final had no tent for shelter at the meet where he was preparing to run. While the rest of the Division 2 field teams erected tents on a snow-covered Franklin Park, the then O’Bryant senior was forced to seek shelter under the bridge, then warmth in his coach’s car.
Growing up in Dorchester, the Cape Verdean immigrant trained on the Franklin Park course in both blistering heat and in 6-inches of snow. So Sanca, brushing off the elements, had no problem winning the Division 2 title by 15 seconds in 2004, just his first full season of cross country.
“I was just there bundled up in so many layers but I knew I was in really good shape,’’ recalled the 25-year-old who will represent Cape Verde in the 2012 London Olympics this month. “There were just a lot of memories going through my mind … I thought as the only person [running] from the city, I carried a lot on my back to represent not just the John D. O’Bryant School but I was representing the whole entire city program.
“I felt in order for the city to realize we had capabilities I had to outperform everyone. I was carrying a big load. I had to do my best to show the city and the athletic director we need a cross country program so we can work like those other kids. For me, the victory wasn’t just personal, it was more for the city.’’
The next day Sanca — who earned Boston Globe All-Scholastic honors that year before embarking on a successful running career at the UMass Lowell — took a copy of the Boston Globe story about his victory in the snow to Still.
“I knocked on his door and showed it to him and he smiled,’’ Sanca recalled. “That was big for me to show him Boston kids can do cross country if they are given the opportunity to coach them and the resources.’’
A dual American and Cape Verde citizen, Sanca will run the 5,000 meters in London after receiving an Olympic bid through a wild-card system in which a country is allotted a certain number of entries for their top athletes.
Sanca, who currently works as the business manager for student affairs at UMass Lowell, caught the eye of the Cape Verde track coaches after clocking a personal best of 13 minutes, 56.46 seconds in the 5,000 in the Boston University Terrier Invitational in 2010.
He has since represented the West African islands at the 2011 IAAF World Championship in Daegu, South Korea, where he placed 48th (2:34.4) in the marathon.
Sanca’s goal at the Olympics is not just to make the finals of the 5,000 meters but also to prove to the rest of the world that his country can build a running program.
“It’s funny how I was running for the city because that’s how I felt and now it’s the same thing: ‘You guys are from Africa too, how come you can’t run?’ I am trying to show them, yes we can do it,’’ Sanca said during a recent telephone interview.
Sanca will not just be one of three athletes to represent Cape Verde at the Olympics this year, he is also only the fifth former BPS track and field athlete to compete in the Olympics, according to Boston City League track commissioner, Mary Grant.
Grant, the former MIAA state meet director for track and field and cross country, said Dorchester High’s Calvin Davis was the most recent Olympian out of a BPS school. He won a bronze medal in the 400-meter hurdles for Team USA in the 1996 Atlanta games.
Leon Coleman, who went to the now defunct Boston Trade High School, placed fourth in the 110-meter hurdles in the 1968 Olympics. And Brighton High graduate Harold Connolly won the hammer throw at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
The most decorated Olympian out of BPS was James B. Connolly of South Boston, who won gold in the triple jump, silver in the high jump and bronze in the long jump at the 1896 Athens Olympics. He also won silver in the triple jump at the 1900 Paris Games.
“It really is amazing when you think about it,’’ Grant said. “[Sanca’s] just such a great kid. He stayed at UMass Lowell and got his MBA and he comes down and he helps the Boston scholar athletes.’’
“Everybody in the O’Bryant family is thrilled and happy,’’ the school’s track coach Jose Ortega said of Sanca making the Olympics. “Everyone remembers him and is excited. They are all going to be watching so it’s great.’’
Sanca was an unlikely candidate to carry the mantel for the city’s most dominant running program. The soccer player led the Boston City League South in scoring during his sophomore year and was elected to be the team’s captain before his junior year, a season he never ended up playing.
After Sanca spent the fall of his sophomore year playing soccer and the winter and spring running track, he realized he was losing to runners who only had an edge on him because they ran cross country in the fall.
He needed to make a decision. So he quit the soccer team and successfully begged the city’s athletic director to start a cross country program the following fall.
“It just blossomed from that point on,’’ Ortega said. “It just evolved. You could see the drive in his face. This is what he wanted to do.’’
The team only had about five runners and Sanca clocked times out around 18 minutes and 43 seconds (he ran a personal best 15:59 his senior year) before suffering an injuring that forced him to miss nearly the entire season.
After he was healthy, Sanca committed to his training harder than ever — mostly working out alone on streets across the city — and by that spring he won the mile at the Division 2 class meet.
“It was pretty hard when I was living in the city and even when I went home during breaks for the summer [during college] I had to make a decision, how bad do I want this,’’ the Dracut resident said. “I think sometimes we face challenges. For myself, there are not many distance runners running in the city. You don’t see a lot of guys running in short shorts in Dorchester.
“I got made fun of by a lot of people who called me ‘short shorts, run Forest run,’ but I had made a decision. I honestly did not think about what people thought. I just rolled with it and did what I needed to do.’’
After Sanca graduated from O’Bryant in 2005, he was pleased to see Charlestown cross country runners Omar Aden and Ahmed Ali excel on the city-wide cross country team that he helped start. After Aden and Ali left to run for the University of Arkansas and Providence College respectfully, the city-wide cross country team fell by the wayside. But it is slated to return this fall.
And Sanca can only hope his trip to the Olympics will inspire the next generation of BPS runners.
“Even when I was in college, every time I went to the next level, whether in New England or internationally, I was always thinking in the back of my mind ‘this is for O’Bryant,’’’ he said, “‘all the kids there now they are going to see it; coach Ortega will give them the information about how I’m doing.’’’