American athletes won't be the only ones rocking the red, white and blue at the world track and field championships in late August. Carol Rodriguez, 25, a sprinter representing Puerto Rico, will also be competing in Daegu, South Korea, host of the 2011 edition of the biannual event.
Rodriguez, the Los Angeles-born daughter of an African-American mother and a father of Puerto Rican descent, holds five national records for the Caribbean island -- in the indoor 60 meters and in the outdoor 100 meters, 200 meters, 400 meters and 4x100-meter relay. A 2008 Olympian, Rodriguez won two medals at the 2010 Central American and Caribbean games, and she was named the 2006 Women's Athlete of the Year for Puerto Rico. She is also an ambassador for first lady Michelle Obama's campaign against childhood obesity.
Each time Rodriguez takes to the track, she's competing for the national pride of Puerto Rico. But as sole provider for her family, the 2008 University of Southern California graduate has more on her mind than just lane assignments and baton exchanges.
My mom took care of me for 18 years, and now it's my turn to return the favor.” -- Carol Rodriguez
In August 2010, seven months' worth of mortgage payments for the Rodriguez home in Anaheim were entrusted to the cousin of Carol's stepfather, but never reached the bank, according to Rodriguez. No charges were ever filed. The financial bind caused the family to lose the house, and Rodriguez's mother, diabetic stepfather, younger brother and younger sister moved into an overpriced suite at the Hilton in Anaheim.
At the time, Rodriguez was oblivious to her family's financial struggles. Life seemed grand for this Nike-sponsored pro as she competed in track meets all over the globe.
"I had just finished racing in Canada for a few weeks, when my mom finally told me what was going on [in the fall of 2010]," Rodriguez said. "I couldn't believe it."
She decided to take swift action, moving the family out of the hotel and into her three-bedroom home in Hollywood Hills. Her stepfather would later leave the house for full-time dialysis treatment at a local hospital. The escalation of his illness stemmed in part from the stress of losing the home. He is still hospitalized, receiving treatment.
"Most 25-year-olds worry about hanging out with their friends, but I have to take care of my family," Rodriguez said. "Don't get me wrong, I go out and enjoy myself, but I know where my responsibility is. My mom took care of me for 18 years, and now it's my turn to return the favor."
For Rodriguez, family comes first. And though she was born in California and lives there now, her connection to Puerto Rico allows her to compete professionally for the island. Her last name catapulted her onto the international track and field circuit.
"A coach from the Puerto Rican team scouted me [during] my senior year of high school," Rodriguez said. "He heard my last name and asked my coach, 'Is she Puerto Rican? Because her last name is.' Things just skyrocketed from there."
Rodriguez's biological father grew up in the hillside town of Yauco, Puerto Rico. Her African-American mom was raised in New Orleans' Ninth Ward housing projects.
Rodriguez's parents fell in love at the Southern California bottling factory where both worked, and they decided to start a family in Anaheim. They couldn't know that their American dream would one day turn into a nightmare for their biracial daughter.
"Growing up in Orange County as an ethnic person was tough," Rodriguez said. "My high school track team [at Western High School in Anaheim, Calif.] was mostly comprised of black girls, and when things would go missing from the school locker room, the other teams would automatically look at us."
Rodriguez's high school track coach was fired, she said, because of racial conflicts at the school. The next year, Rodriguez transferred to Woodrow Wilson Classical High School in Long Beach, Calif., a nationally known high school track mecca. She found a place in the melting pot of students. The once-shy, curly-haired girl was replaced with her spitfire sprinter alter ego, "C-Rod," who embraces her Caribbean roots.
"C-Rod is my outspoken side," Rodriguez said. "She doesn't care about what is going on outside of the track. She just gets the job done, no matter what the circumstances. She is confident in all that she does."
Rodriguez stays connected to her Puerto Rican roots via several visits a year with her biological father, grandmother and cousins. She loves eating sugar cane and mangoes fresh from the fields on the Island of Enchantment.
"In Puerto Rico, you can always find me at this one spot called Bebo's," she said. "I love their rice and beans and seven-layer cake. I go there because it's so hard to find good Puerto Rican food in L.A."
When Rodriguez isn't nibbling on traditional Puerto Rican fare or spending time with her family, she's putting in work on the track. Her goals for this season are to adjust to the hectic lifestyle of a professional athlete while gearing up for the 2012 Olympics. She did not advance out of the first round of either the 200 meters or 400 meters at the 2008 Games in Beijing.
Rodriguez is also focused on being an average 20-something, even as she faces a little more headwind in her off-track life than most athletes do.
"Meeting goals on the track is important to me, but my family will always be there, " Rodriguez said. "Maintaining my faith in God is the only way I know how to win for me and them."