Irving Saladino has arguably been one of the most prolific athletes produced by Panama, being the first and only Olympic gold medalist for his country. As a novice, he started out as a sprinter, but later narrowed his focus to long-jump. Throughout his professional career, spanning over a decade, he earned his country and the Central American region a number of accolades, proving his mettle in long-jump competitions all over the world. He came into the spotlight after his earliest performances at the Central American championships, where his ensuing success made him the top contender for representing Panama in the global sporting arenas. Though he also participated in triple-jump as well as long-jump events during his days as a beginner, he eventually chose to focus primarily on the latter. His biggest challenge, especially towards the end of his career, came in the form of injuries, eventually compelling him to bid farewell to his long-jump career and announce his retirement at the age of 31. Even after his retirement, the former Olympian has vowed to keep himself in close touch with the game and continues to be Panama’s ambassador in the world of sports.
Childhood & Early Life
He was born on January 23, 1983 in Colon, Panama to David and Cristina Saladino. His mother is an educator, while his father — an electrician by profession — represented the regional baseball team in a number of national championships.
His athleticism had been evident right from the time he was in elementary school. Seeing his innate talent, his brother encouraged him to try his hand at track and field. While he showed immense potential on track, he would still find time to play his other favorite sport, baseball.
As a novice, he started out with sprinting, but switched to long and triple-jumping following the advice of his first coach, Florencio Aguilar, who believed there was more to his pace than running.
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Upon encouragement from Aguilar, Saladino decided to enter in international tournaments, making his first appearance in the 2002 Central American Junior Championships held in Guatemala. His performance at the event earned him major accolades as he went on to win gold medals for both long-jump and triple-jump.
The same year, he took part in the Central American and Caribbean Junior Championship held at Barbados. While he earned a bronze medal for long-jump, he was placed sixth in the triple-jump event.
Later in 2002, he participated in the World Junior Championship in Jamaica, but could only secure the tenth position. He ended the year well when he won gold for long-jump, silver for triple-jump and bronze in the 4x100 meter relay race at the Central American Championship in Costa Rica.
At this point, he decided to concentrate primarily on long-jump. The decision paid off at the 2003 South American Games held in Venezuela, where he won a bronze medal. The following year, he went back to Venezuela to play in the Under-23 South American Games and scored gold.
He made it to the 2004 Athens Olympic, but could not make it past the qualifying round. A year later, he followed up his Olympic debacle with another disappointing show at the World Championships held in Finland, where he could only manage the sixth spot.
He bounced back in 2006 with a string of solid performances, starting off with a silver medal at the World Indoor Championship in Russia. Then came four consecutive gold-winning performances at: the Ibero-American Championship, the Central American and Caribbean Games, the World Athletics Final and the World Cup.
He continued his gold-winning streak the following year when he won the Pan American Games in Brazil and the World Championship in Japan. He scored another gold medal at the 2008 FBK Games in The Netherlands.
The year 2008 not only brought him the biggest achievement of his career, but also earned Panama its greatest sporting honor. After qualifying for the Beijing Olympic Games, Saladino went on to win gold for his stellar performance.
2009 proved to be an uneventful year for the athlete as he battled with severe injuries, which resulted in three no-jumps during his performance at the World Championship in Germany.
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In 2010, he failed to get past the qualifying round of the World Indoor Championship in Qatar. He came back with a strong performance at the Central American Games in Panama, where he not only stood first, but also set a new game record.
The next two years were relatively unproductive. Even though he was chosen to be Panama’s flag bearer at the 2012 London Olympics, he went out in the first round.
He made a comeback in 2013, participating in the Central American Games in Costa Rica, where he won gold. At the South American Games in Colombia, he earned a bronze medal.
With his injuries growing in intensity, his performance in world tournaments continued to suffer. This was evident during the 2014 World Indoor Games in Poland, in which he was ousted in the qualifying round.
He recovered enough to win a gold medal at the 2014 South American Games in Chile, but was still challenged by his injuries. He eventually decided to retire from the game after consulting with his coaches Florencio Aguilar and Nelio Moura.
Awards & Achievements
He won gold medal in Long Jump in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games with a jump of 8.34m.
After his 2008 Olympic gold win, the President of Panama awarded Saladino $50,000.
He carried Panama’s flag at the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro and the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
Personal Life & Legacy
Upon his return following his glorious performance at the 2008 Olympics, the President of Panama declared that a sports facility at Villa Deportiva in Juan Diaz would be named after Saladino.
His alma mater Professional and Technical Institute of Columbus (IPTC) named the campus gym after him.
As a youngster, Saladino wanted to move to the United States, a place he saw as the land of opportunities. His wish did come true when he went to NYC and stayed with his aunt for a year after finishing high-school. Though he loved NYC, he could not make it his home.
He is the only Central American to win an Olympic gold medal.