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Border & Immigration

Record number of Baja athletes qualify for Olympic Games

The Olympics are two months away, but Baja California is already breaking records.

Five athletes from the Mexican border state have already qualified for the Summer Games — the most ever. And a dozen more still have a shot to earn last-minute tickets to Paris through regional qualifying tournaments.

Baja Gov. Marina del Pilar Avila praised Baja’s Olympians during a recent celebratory event at Tijuana’s Olympic Training Center.

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“You represent the best that our land has to offer,” she said in Spanish to hundreds of young athletes.

Those athletes are part of the state’s Olympic training pipeline. Every year, coaches hold workshops in schools throughout the state, identify the most promising athletes, and put them in a special development program.

All five of Baja’s Olympic athletes were once part of this training program.

To them, going to the Olympics is a unique opportunity to show the world what Mexico has to offer.

“It’s always wonderful to say, ‘look at my country, we can also do great things,’” said gymnast Alexa Moreno.

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She added she wants to show that Mexico is more than scandalous headlines about cartel violence and drug smuggling.

Moreno, 29, is already one of Mexico’s most decorated gymnasts. She won a bronze medal in vault at the 2018 World Championships, making her the first Mexican woman to earn a medal at the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships. More recently, she won a gold medal in vault at the 2023 Pan-American Games.

The Mexicali native has been training in Texas with U.S. gymnastics star Simone Biles.

Moreno spoke at the Olympic Training Center event and offered young athletes a piece of advice.

“At the end of the day, the important thing is not to avoid mistakes,” she said. “It’s to pick yourself up and try again.”

One of Moreno’s teammates on the Mexican gymnastics team is Natalia Escalera. This will be the first Summer Olympics for the 21-year-old from Ensenada.

Dozens of little girls asked her for photos and selfies during the Tijuana event.

“I was one of those little girls asking for photos,” she said. “And being on the other side of that now is very emotional.”

Escalera fell in love with gymnastics when she was 8 years old. She’s sacrificed a normal childhood — she couldn’t attend a regular school with her friends and has had to stick to a strict diet most of her life.

Despite the sacrifices, or perhaps because of them, Escalera is proud to show the world what people from Ensenada can do.

“I’m very excited to represent my little piece of Baja California in Paris,” she said.

Three of Baja California's five Olympic athletes pose for photos with Governor Marina del Pilar Avila. from the right, rower Alexis Lopez, gymnast Alex Moreno, del Pilar Avila, and gymnast Natalia Escalera.
Matthew Bowler
/
KPBS
Three of Baja California's five Olympic athletes pose for photos with Governor Marina del Pilar Avila. from the right, rower Alexis Lopez, gymnast Alex Moreno, del Pilar Avila, and gymnast Natalia Escalera.

All Baja athletes share the same excitement. Not only are they representing Mexico and Baja California, but their hometowns too.

That is especially true of Alexis Lopez, a 27-year-old rower from a town most people could not point to on a map.

He’s from San Felipe, a town of at most 20,000 people tucked away in the Gulf of California. It’s mostly known as a quaint little fishing village — and now, home to an Olympic rower.

“It is a very demanding sport,” Lopez said of rowing. “You have to give it 100% every single day.”

Lopez won gold medals at the 2019 and 2023 Pan-American Games.

The other two Olympic-bound Baja athletes are Marta Ayala, a 25-year-old open water swimmer from Mexicali, and Daniela Souza, a 24-year-old taekwondo athlete from Tijuana.