Rickshaw driver, house painter, mechanic... and one of the fastest men in the world

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"Dreaming small is hypocritical. You have to dream big," said Anthony Zambrano. With that mindset, he won a silver 400m medal at the 2019 Doha World Championships and is aiming to win a medal at Tokyo 2020

Anthony Zambrano's story has been built and crafted literally by himself.

The 22-year-old athlete has already competed at an Olympic Games and won silver at the IAAF 2019 Athletics World Championships. He also has an incredibly diverse work history.

"I've done a lot of things in my life: cycle rickshaw driver, motorcycle rickshaw driver, bricklayer, painter and decorator, mechanic... I don’t regret trying any of those things, because those sacrifices helped me to fight and to get to where I am now. Every time I’m on the track, I think about what I am, where I came from and how I got here,” the athlete told Tokyo2020.

It’s not easy growing up in Colombia, and many people have to learn to earn a living from an early age. But despite all of this, Zambrano has kept his dreams alive.

“I’ve had to face tough things in my life, but little-by-little they have become softer. It’s like dough! When you pour water onto it, it becomes softer and you can cook an arepa [a traditional dish popular in Colombia]. It’s the same with life. For a diamond to shine you need to polish it,” he explained.

Anthony Jose Zambrano of Colombia reacts after running in the Boys 400m semi-finals at the IAAF World Youth Championships, Cali 2015  (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images for IAAF)
Anthony Jose Zambrano of Colombia reacts after running in the Boys 400m semi-finals at the IAAF World Youth Championships, Cali 2015 (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images for IAAF)
2015 Getty Images

Finding inspiration at home

Zambrano was a diamond in the rough, but there was somebody who polished him until he shined.

His mother.

She was the one who raised him and always made sure he believed in his dreams.

“My mum is my inspiration. Since I was a child she has always fought for us. Because of me, she worked so hard as a stay-at-home mum. Thank God that she can rest up a little now, because I can give her a better life. That has always been my motivation,” explained Zambrano.

In fact, Zambrano’s mum now has all his medals and trophies.

“All my medals are for her. I don’t have them… she always steals them from me! I just compete and she wins the medals,” the Colombian athlete said while laughing.

One of the medals his mother holds onto is the 400m silver he won at the IAAF 2019 World Championships.

For now, that medal represents his greatest achievement as an athlete. And his mother once again played an integral role in that success.

“I remember the training sessions so clearly. All of the sacrifices I've made to win the medal. Nothing I did was in vain. I moved out of home and that was how I achieved my mother’s dream. She told me she would be the happiest person in the world if I gave her a World Championship and Olympic medal. So, I told her: ‘Mum, don’t worry. I’m on it. If I have your support and my wife’s support, we can go wherever we want to',” recalled Zambrano.

He already has one of those medals, but having an Olympic medal is his dream.

A surprise for Tokyo 2020

Now that Tokyo 2020 is on the horizon, Zambrano’s aim is to achieve something great in the Games.

The runner has already experienced one Olympics. When he was only 18, the Colombian competed in the 4x400m relay at Rio 2016.

But at that time, not everything in his life was perfect.

“It wasn’t my best moment. I did well in Rio, but not perfectly because I was young. I was affected by a lot of things. But then I made Tokyo 2020 my next goal.”

Soon after the Rio Olympics, Zambrano suffered an ankle injury and needed two full years to recover.

At that time, he thought his dreams were fading. He couldn’t find the support he needed and he even started to reconsider his athletic career. He thought about returning to his old life - maybe painting again, returning to the rickshaw.

But he rose up.

“I was about to give up my career, but again my mother supported me and helped me to recover from my injury.”

And with that, he also recovered his Tokyo dream, even though he didn’t want to reveal exactly what that dream is.

“I prefer it if it’s a surprise,” he said.

Sport took me off the wrong path.

I am happy to be an athlete in my country.

An example to youngsters

Zambrano wants his career to inspire the youth of Colombia. He wants them to dream as big as he did.

“For me, it’s a pleasure to motivate young people. In Colombia they face a lot of violence, go down bad paths, take wrong steps in life. I would like them to see that, if I could do it, they can too. In my case, sport took me off the wrong path. I am happy to be an athlete in my country. My country is happy when I compete.”

Not only is Zambrano on the right path when he’s on the track, but also when he’s off of it. He feels that this is the way he can be a complete athlete. And, of course, he continues to dream.

"I like to dream big. Dreaming small is somehow hypocritical. I always wanted something big. My professor [the name Zambrano gives his coach] explained to me that a good athlete is good, not only on the track, but also on the streets - trying to be a good, well brought-up person.”

“In this life, we need to fight for our dreams. You never give up, because if you do you have already lost. Life has many obstacles and barriers. You can either overcome them, or you can stay where you are.”

Beyond the Games

And now Zambrano needs to make the right steps and transform them into his strongest strides at Tokyo 2020. He knows the effort that it's going to take.

“In this life you need to do thousands and thousands of things in order to achieve just one. If Usain Bolt needed four years to lower his personal best by a few seconds, I’ll have to make the same effort to win an Olympic medal.”

With this in mind, the athlete will try to travel to Europe to compete in some events and try to beat his personal best of 44.15 which he achieved in Doha. It was in Doha that Zambrano became the first Colombian athlete to win a World Championship 400m medal.

However, not all of Zambrano's dreams relate to athletics… although they are related to speed.

"Motorbikes are my hobby. During the lockdown I have disassembled my bikes, assembled then again and made them prettier. The day I end my athletics career, I would like to own my own mechanics business.”

Without a doubt, Zambrano remains to be the same young man who decided to leave Colombia and truly dream big.