By From the Lowell Sun
By David Perry
Ruben Sanca will slow down long enough next Saturday to receive his business degree from UMass Lowell, among 2,200 other grads.
He may even take a few days off.
And then, the 22-year-old will run. Off toward his MBA, he hopes, at UMass Lowell, and perhaps, eventually, to the Olympics. He will volunteer three summer days a week at the Greater Roxbury Track Club, helping kids who want to run like he does.
They gave him a scholarship. This is payback.
His exploits on the track at UMass Lowell have been thoroughly chronicled on the sports pages. Sports Illustrated took notice in its Jan. 19 "Faces in The Crowd" column. His intellect has been sharpened in the university library. Some nights, he lingered there so late they had to kick him out. He served as treasurer for the university's student government.
His most important accomplishment, the one that says most about him, say athletic department officials, is that last week, he won the David Boutin Award.
Along the way, he faced deep personal heartbreak and physical injury.
His trek began in Sal, the Cape Verde island whose name means "salt" in Portuguese. Known for its salt mines, the island -- all of 83 square miles -- held little hope for Ruben. For generations, his family worked the mines, and few there aspired to much beyond the dusty island.
So when he was 12, his family moved to Roxbury, partly as a move toward a better future for Ruben and his two brothers, partly to help
the asthma attacks that more than once sent him to the hospital.
Once in Boston, Sanca improved his English, and earned straight A's.
He didn't run in middle school. He didn't even enjoy it. Soccer was his sport.
But when he reached John O'Bryant High School, one of the soccer captains suggested Sanca run to increase his stamina and speed.
This time, Sanca loved it so much he left the soccer team.
His asthma had improved and he was soon breaking school records.
"I couldn't believe it myself," he says.
As a high school senior, he qualified for the national championships in New York.
He chose UMass Lowell because financial aid "made it more affordable than other schools," and his parents hoped he would stay close to Boston.
During his freshman year in college, Sanca's mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Ruben typically awoke at 8 a.m. on school days. Between classes, practice, his student-government work and the library, there were stretches when he didn't see his roommate for days. He served on the university's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and the Residence Hall Council.
Sanca values his education above all. He maintained a 3.33 GPA. He wants to work in the investment world.
"Since I was little, I always liked working with money. It's something I see myself doing to help others, but also to help myself."
Earning his MBA is important, he says. But so is his Olympic dream. He would like to run the marathon for the Cape Verde team at the 2012 games in London.
"My mother always wanted me to do well in school and she wanted me to keep running," Sanca says. "She wanted to one day see me in the Olympics."
On Jan. 24, at the Boston University Terrier Invitational, Sanca posted the fastest Division 2 time in the country in the 5,000-meter race, lopping five seconds off the school record and qualifying for both the NCAA Division II and U.S. championships.
In the midst of the indoor track season, he was running at his peak.
His mother died Feb. 2.
"It was not really unexpected," he says, softly. "She had been doing better and three years later, I thought she was recovering. But when I saw her in November, the effect of the cancer was noticeable."
He stayed home for a week, then returned for the Feb. 13 Boston University Valentine Invitational, running 4:07.37 in the mile, missing the school record by a second.
"He dealt with it really well," says Joey Dewitt, 23, who has run cross-country with Sanca for four years. "I don't know how many people would be able to continue the season. But he came back and won the New Englands. He's sort of amazing to watch ... And then, he goes out and gets a serious injury. He didn't know it, though. So he kept running."
On a snowy day in early March, during a run in preparation for the nationals, he slipped and fell.
"I hurt myself, took a couple of days off, and figured it was a bruise. Sometimes, it just goes away. But it didn't."
He iced the spot on his lower back, and continued to train. At the nationals, he was in too much pain to compete.
He finally went for an MRI, and the doctor called the next day. He had cracked his sacrum, a large bone at the base of the spine. His season was over, and it killed his outdoor track season.
"Myself, my parents, we've all had struggles at some point," Sanca says. "My family is very religious, my faith very strong. In my sophomore year, I pulled a hamstring. It ended my indoor season. My uncle called me. He used to be a runner. And he said, you will come back stronger.
"Sports has helped me. Stuff like school and sports go hand in hand. You have a hard run, a hard test, you learn to come back from it."
On May 12, Sanca became the first UMass Lowell student to twice receive the David Boutin Award (named for the 1988-90 UML baseball player who died of cancer), which hails the outstanding male student-athlete who excels not only in sports, but the classroom, and as an example of giving back to the community.
"Ruben has been to my home in Maine," Dewitt says. "My mother loves him. And whenever I bring up anything negative, or complain, she says, 'Joey, you need to be more like Ruben.' "