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This young Latino and DACA Olympic athlete had to clear his biggest hurdle

Runner Luis Grijalva will be representing his native Guatemala, but the U.S. college student first had to get approval to leave the country.
Luis Grijalva of the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks finishes in ninth place during the Division I Men's and Women's Cross Country Championships on March 15, 2021, in Stillwater, Okla.
Luis Grijalva of the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks finishes in ninth place during the Division I Men's and Women's Cross Country Championships on March 15 in Stillwater, Okla.Shane Bevel / NCAA Photos via Getty Images file

Runner Luis Grijalva recently got the news he was waiting for — and it's culminating in the journey of a lifetime.

The Arizona college student will be going to Tokyo to participate in the Olympics, representing his native country of Guatemala. But in his case, being able to live his dream as an Olympian went beyond qualifying as an athlete.

Grijalva was named to the Guatemalan Olympic team in June, after the 22-year-old finished second in the NCAA 5,000-meter final for Northern Arizona University with a time of 13 minutes, 13.14 seconds.

The hurdle to get to Tokyo was not about sports.

Grijalva came to the United States with his family when he was a 1-year-old, and he is in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, the Obama-era program that now protects over 600,000 teens and young adults who were brought to the U.S. as children, allowing them to study and work without worrying about deportation.

Though the recipients, also known as Dreamers, are not allowed to travel outside the country, there are exceptions as long as they can provide a valid reason related to humanitarian, educational or employment purposes.

“If I don’t get the permit in time and if I do go to the Games, then technically I’ll be self-deporting, which — I won’t go if I don’t get the permit,” he told NBC Bay Area on Saturday.

The runner shared in an emotional Instagram post Sunday night that although he began his “roots” in Guatemala, living in the United States since he was a year old makes him feel “as American as anybody else who was born here.”

Additionally, he wrote of the impact it would have for Dreamers like him if he were to go to the Olympics.

"It would be a honor and a privilege to represent my home country but also be able to be a voice and represent over 600,000 Dreamers like me," he wrote. "Tomorrow morning I will be marching down the USCIS office in Phoenix to make one last effort in gaining an advance parole that allows me to leave the country and be able to return safely."

While Guatemala's coaches and runners left for Tokyo on Sunday, Grijalva left for Phoenix with his lawyer, Jessica Smith Bobadilla, to visit the government's immigration office on Monday to request a special permit to leave the country, a process that normally takes 90 days. On top of that, he needed it by Wednesday to compete in the Olympics.

He waited anxiously Monday for hours at the office when in the afternoon he heard the news: He was approved. Now Grijalva will be flying out Friday to run for Guatemala on Aug. 3 for the preliminary 5,000-meter race.

“It’s just a lot of emotions — excitement, just really happy,” Grijalva told The New York Times. “Excited to run at the Games and represent Guatemala, but also to leave the country and know I can return to the country safely.”

Grijalva grew up in Fairfield, California, where he excelled at running, breaking school records, winning state championships and earning a full scholarship to Northern Arizona University, where he helped win three NCAA cross-country championships in four years. He's also signed a contract with the shoe company Hoka One One.

“The opportunities I had coming to the United States provided me with so much more than I could ask for,” Grijalva told The New York Times.

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