As a teenage runner living in his native Mexico, Julio Mercado had grand visions. He dreamed of the world stage, of running on the fast track to glory, culminating with a photo finish amid a sea of flash bulbs and cheering crowds.
The glitter of gold -- that shiny medal draped over his neck -- was his motivation, every day at practice, every stride.
As a member of the Mexican National Team, Mercado's dreams were realistic -- and his fastest times in the 800 (1:57), 1,500 (4:05) and 5K (14:25) were all elite level marks. He was on the cusp of greatness.
But there's a fine line that separates world-class athletes, and in Mercado's case, it was scoliosis (curvature of the spine) -- a condition he was born with and has required 12 surgeries over his lifetime.
Scoliosis certainly didn't slow Julio's determination; it just forced him to reprogram his priorities and recalibrate his goals.
So, six years ago, Mercado created the Wolf Pack Junior Running Club, and it's been full-speed ahead ever since. Based at the Vaughan Athletic Center, the Wolf Pack offers opportunities for children ages 5 to 18 to get involved in the sport of running -- and enjoy the benefits.
"Through running, I wanted to provide local kids with ways to get active and be involved in something healthy," Mercado said. "We're building skills but also learning about things that carry over into everyday life like goal-setting, the importance of hard work and the rewards that can come as a result."
It's worked out impressively thus far. Earlier this month, the Wolf Pack qualified 10 of its members for the USA National Youth Indoor Track and Field Championships next weekend in Maryland -- and also earned a trip to the AAU Indoor National Championship in Alabama.
Leading the way is Karina Liz -- the current national indoor champion in the 400 and 800 meters. Joining her as national qualifiers are Audrey Harrod (800), Tanner Chada (800 and 1600), Jacob Bohnert (1600), Isabella Orozco (800, 1600), Viviana Ponce (800), Anna Laura Ponce (200), Diana Gomez-Calleja (800), Yesenia Gomez-Calleja (800) and Melanie Mercado (200), Julio's daughter.
Mercado, 38, who has been coaching for the last 16 years since coming to the U.S., has helped others achieve their dreams. When he launched the Wolf Pack Club and originally worked with adults, he coached three of his runners -- who had little to no experience prior to working with him -- into qualifying for the Boston Marathon.
He continues to achieve similarly lofty accomplishments. For each national qualifier that develops through his program, for each runner that starts from scratch and earns a college scholarship, Mercado smiles with Olympic-size pride.
"I want all of my runners to be the best they can be," Mercado said. "It's the mentality that's most important. I want every runner to believe in themself. If you set your mind to it, you can do it."
But it's not just the fastest runners who make him proud; it's the fact that everybody in his program runs with a purpose.
"It's all about heart, determination and believing in yourself," Mercado said. "We are always setting goals, because goals give you something to work toward; it's an attitude to achieve and excel."
It's a vision that's good as gold.
For information on the Wolf Pack Junior Running Club, call the Vaughan Center at (630) 907-9600.
Jeff Long is the public relations manager for the Fox Valley Park District. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.