“They Had My Back”: Freddie De Los Santos’ Army Buddies Helped Lift Him In Tokyo
by Joanne C. Gerstner
Freddie De Los Santos competes in para-cycling at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020. (Photo: Casey Gibson)
Freddie De Los Santos repeats himself three times, making sure his message to the world is clear. All his accomplishments as an elite U.S. Para-cyclist, culminating in a bronze medal at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, happened because of two things:
He relies on his deep Catholic faith, and the unwavering support from his family and U.S. Army community.
Celebrating Veteran’s Day today carries a special significance for De Los Santos, who is a retired Army staff sergeant. It’s been more than a decade since he was seriously injured when a rocket-propelled grenade struck the vehicle he was in while serving in Afghanistan.
De Los Santos’ relied on the teamwork and support of his Fort Bragg-based unit, which worked with the Special Forces, before and after the attack. Cycling led him back to mental and physical recovery, and became one of his life passions.
He clearly felt his military buddies’ spirit and love again in Tokyo, as they flooded him with texts of love and encouragement before his time trial, mixed team relay and road races. They watched him on TV, and cheered when he won his bronze medal in the relay.
And that’s where his repeating, for emphasis, comes in.
“They had my back. They really, really had my back. They had … my … back,” De Los Santos, 52, said, with emotion in his voice. “My buddies, my unit guys, we are still as connected as we were when we served. I felt them when I was in Tokyo, I knew they were making sure I was ready to do my best. And there was no question I was going to give everything I had at the Paralympics, because I had to.
“I was racing for me, for my unit, for everybody who made the ultimate sacrifice and did not come home. They gave their lives for my freedom, our freedom, and that lets me do what I am doing with my cycling. I give my best to glorify God, and honor my family, friends and my unit. That is what makes me proud.”
The Tokyo Games were De Los Santos’ second for Team USA, having previously competed in 2016 in Rio. He did not medal five years ago, but he built on the experience to be stronger for Tokyo.
He said the conditions were challenging in Japan, from the heat and humidity to the technically challenging course. Yet De Los Santos felt a familiarity there, as it reminded him of a place more than 4,000 miles away.
Helmand Province. Afghanistan. The spot where he served with his unit, and ended up injured.
“It was so the same to me, the hills, the heat, being under pressure, all of it,” said De Los Santos, a native of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, who now lives in upstate New York. “I know it sounds weird, but it is true. It felt like I knew this, I had experienced this before, and it was there. So I knew how to manage things.”
De Los Santos said the experience of the Tokyo Games pushed his limits, with each handcycle race proving exhausting with short recovery times between the scheduled starts. He had to go, perform, give his all and trust in his training, coaching and teammates.
Which brought him full circle back to serving in the Army.
“I know my time made me different. I go, go, go, go because I need to get things done,” De Los Santos said. “I cannot take it easy; I go with all my best every time. That is what we all did for each other in our unit. I do that now in my life. I want to be my best and give my all.”
De Los Santos admitted the return home from Tokyo was daunting on a few levels. He is grateful and happy to have a bronze medal, plus a fifth-place finish in the road race and a sixth in the time trial. But he couldn’t get back into an eastern time zone sleep pattern easily. He was not sleeping well for two weeks, and felt depressed. It was a letdown, after being so focused, for so long, on reaching Tokyo.
He is now back in a better place, back to his painting and photography, and focusing his training for the 2022 world championships and 2023 Parapan American Games. He also is looking to Paris 2024, wanting to try for another Paralympic Games.
De Los Santos is one of many veterans and active-duty U.S. military competing at the elite Para level, and he clearly sees their impact on public perception. New Para-cycling competitors from the military are emerging and telling De Los Santos he inspires them to be strong.
“I know I am the old guy at 52, but they can see I am still getting it done,” he said, adding a hearty laugh. “They now have another avenue to serve their country and represent the U.S. — like we all did when we were in the service. That is a very important thing to have, and it is a privilege we can do that in a new way.
“It’s how we can show our best and be doing something so positive. I kind of like that I can be part of that, and I want to do it for as long as I can. Cycling is my life, and it keeps me strong, so I am so blessed to be able to serve God and my country with that. It is my honor.”
Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes about sports regularly for the New York Times and other outlets. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.