Days after finishing the best season of his career with the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, the Spanish sprinter suffered a serious traffic accident. The path he has taken since has not been easy, but he is facing the present with optimism and the future with an eye on the dreams he wants to fulfil. Nonetheless his recovery is not complete. "I'm still not in Tokyo, so metaphorically I'm still in the hospital bed," he says.
Four years transpire between one Olympics and another. In this case, it will be five. And the stories of sportspeople during this period revolve around personal bests, titles, rivalries and seeing who has or hasn't achieved Olympic qualification. But for Bruno Hortelano, this journey started with a simple step. Literally.
Rio 2016: First rebirth
2016 was his year: He had been crowned European 200m champion, beaten the Spanish 100m record in June (with a time of 10.06 that still stands to this day) and qualified for the Olympic Games in Rio.
It was during this time that he experienced the moments that have come to define his career. "The most nostalgic memory was the Opening Ceremony: entering the stadium from below through a dark tunnel and coming out into the light of the stadium. Symbolically it was like a rebirth: suddenly I became an Olympian. I was somebody who was capable of fulfilling his dreams. I cried at exactly the moment I entered the stadium. No words can describe it," Hortelano remembers now.
Nevertheless, from a sporting point of view he was so focused on his objectives that the Opening Ceremony was the only ceremony he experienced. He didn't go to the Closing Ceremony. "It's something that happens to me when my body and soul are focused on a great objective. When I finished my competition in Rio I felt an exhaustion that was so absolute and profound that I stayed in bed for two days. In the darkness. A complete exhaustion, not only physical or mental, but also spiritual. It was four years released in one long sigh over two days. And I didn't go to the Closing Ceremony. I watched it on the TV from the Village. On one hand I feel sorry about it, but there was something inside me that knew I would have another opportunity. And I knew that this closure would happen, but in another moment. I hope to have that in Tokyo."
The Opening Ceremony was like a rebirth: Suddenly I became an Olympian.
I was somebody who was capable of fulfilling his dreams.
When everything changed
However, experiencing a new Closing Ceremony would begin with a new Olympiad. And before he could even set his first target, it all fell apart. Along with his cousin, Hortelano suffered a serious traffic accident a week after competing in Rio.
"I woke up in the hospital and didn't know where I was. The memories I had were from many hours before. I didn't know how I'd gotten there. I remember waking up very disoriented, with a lot of confusion, and at the same time I felt like I was on a cloud because of the morphine I had been given, but with an unrelenting pain. Morphine distracts you from the pain, but the pain is still there. I have worked in hospitals as a researcher, so I could imagine what was happening," he said.
At first the news wasn't positive. "The nurse told me that I'd been in a traffic accident. So, the first question that came into my head was whether something serious had happened to my head, because if that had happened it would be very difficult to move forward. He told me that my head had been hit really hard and that I had a large cut, but that my brain was fine. During the following days they conducted two more tests on my head and concluded that my brain was intact. The lucky thing was that whatever cut my head, a piece of iron or whatever, scratched the cranium but didn't break the bone. And there was the luck and the destiny. So I asked about my legs and he told me they were fine, and I was already celebrating. I asked about my arm and he told me that I had seriously dislocated my right hand. And I asked, "Am I going to lose it?" and he said to me "I don't know." And my cousin was also in the accident, and I couldn't see him. The nurse told me that he didn't know where my cousin was, and that moment was very hard for me. Later, hours afterwards, I found out that my cousin was fine, safe and sound, and that I was the one who had been hit hardest. That was a victory for me;" he said.
Sometimes it's irrational to think that things will turn out well
it's unrealistic, but it doesn't matter because it helps you
That was the moment his next Olympiad began. "It really didn't matter if I'd lost my hand if I knew that I had my brain and legs. It's difficult to put into words, but I had accepted losing my hand. And these were lessons. I had come out of a marathon that was a four year Olympiad. And from the first moment I knew that another marathon was beginning. We went back to the beginning, in a very different environment. I had to have patience, to keep my mind on my objectives, and to be optimistic. Sometimes it's irrational to think that things will turn out well, it's unrealistic, but it doesn't matter because it helps you."
"Initially, I set myself the goal of getting out of bed, going down the hallway and touching the back wall. And that took a number of weeks, but finally I achieved it, with the help of my family and the doctors who were incredible, my angels. They saved my life, and not only the surgeons, but also my internal medicine doctor. When the car crashed, my hand scratched against the asphalt and I was infected with a very bad bacteria. That was how they saved my life because this infection could have entered my bloodstream," the Spanish athlete explained.
Hortelano went into the operating theatre eight times over a period of six months (including four surgeries and four times to clean the wound). "I was not thinking about sport at all at that moment. It was all about trying to save my life: and not just that my heart would keep beating, but also recovering my identity, the image I had of myself when I looked in the mirror. It was a six-month marathon going in and out of hospital."
I was not thinking about sport at all at that moment. It was all about trying to save my life:
and not just that my heart would keep beating, but also recovering my identity
When the one who is fastest needs to take it slowly
Facing all of this has caused Hortelano to learn two great lessons: acceptance and patience.
"Acceptance was a huge lesson: I learnt to know how to distinguish between the things that I could control and those things that I couldn't control. And with the things that I could, I made the decision to control them the best that I could. It's not so different to what is happening now, on a global level," he says, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The second lesson - that of patience - has also served him well when facing other situations after the accident, for example injuries.
"In that moment I knew I wasn't going to fulfil any of my dreams. And I'm a dreamer, I'm an artist and I continue to be a child. The same child that was eight years old and dreamed about the Olympics after seeing the Games in Sydney on the TV. For the London 2012 Games I was rushed and, of course, I didn't make it. I had qualified for the Games in Rio but I still had lessons to learn: and so I learnt the lesson of patience, and this is the lesson I am learning now. Even though I have passed through the initial phase, I am still feeling the repercussions of all of that."
Since the accident, the road ahead has still been difficult. Hortelano spent "some 22 months" without competing. He had to give up on the 2017 world athletics championships. "I didn't go to the world championships and that's because, even though I was training, I wasn't in the physical state necessary to perform to the best of my abilities. I didn't want to continue following my dreams while making a fool of myself along the way, because that doesn't represent me, my family, my people or my country. That doesn't mean the results were going to be bad, but they wouldn't have seen the best of me."
Even though he suffered a sports hernia in 2018, he won bronze in the European 4x400m and broke two more Spanish records: the 200m (with a time of 20.04) and the 400m (with a time of 44.69). But since then he hasn't been able to compete following an Achilles tendon injury in 2019. "Every year has brought its challenges and each one has been different. And my Olympiad has been formed by them."
It's all in the head
There is a gesture, putting his fingers to his head, that defines Hortelano. "It's a gesture that I invented with one of my best friends in 2013, when we decided to dye our hair the same colour as the Spanish flag. Really ugly. We went to a European under-23 championship with our hair like that. After some days we had forgotten that our hair was like that, but people kept looking at us. It was all in the head, evidently. Finally my friend was the European 10,000m champion and I achieved the minimum requirements to go to my first world championships. The gestures means that everything that we want begins and ends in the head: it starts with a dream and ends with the confidence that everything will happen, because the hard work has already been done. At that moment, I felt the hope and I transmitted it in that way and the gesture has remained there," he says.
However, he has not always been able to make use of that hope.
"The hope hasn't been lost. It was masked for a while after the accident and I stopped being able to see it. Even though the injuries and the physical trauma happened in September 2016, the trauma and psychological damage came to me about eight months later. The following June I hit rock bottom psychologically and I entered into a depression. It happened after I gave up on the world championships, I was having personal problems and on top of that I couldn't do my job, which was sport. When I looked at myself in the mirror I saw a weakness in me that wasn't the person I was before. I touched the bottom: apathy, feeling greatly confused, disorientation and a very short-term vision," remembers Hortelano.
I have to give thanks that I can run in a straight line.
Something so simple, but that has saved my life multiple times.
"I went around 22 months without competing after Rio 2016, but thanks to sport I managed to come through all of those situations, that maybe without sport I wouldn't have. I have to give thanks that I can run in a straight line. Something so simple, but that has saved my life various times. Depression isn't something that is talked about a lot but it's something that many people experience, particularly in sport, because it is so ephemeral, because of the dreams and because of wanting to win a gold medal. But there is only one gold medal."
Tokyo 2020: second rebirth
Bruno Hortelano saw the light at the end of the tunnel during the Opening Ceremony of Rio 2016. He felt that rebirth. And since then he has had another rebirth, another light that shines brightly at the end of a tunnel: Tokyo 2020.
"Tokyo is the culmination of a long trajectory, an Olympiad, an odyssey, a long personal path for me as a person and as a sportsperson, but mostly on a personal level. When I was in the hospital I made a promise to myself that I would go to Tokyo if I got out of the hospital bed. If I left the hospital bed it would be to go to Tokyo. I still haven't reached Tokyo, so metaphorically I still haven't left the hospital bed. I haven't got over that yet, and so I am still in the same battle. And it is tiring, sometimes it is tiring," the sprinter says.
In order to leave that hospital bed, he has given himself short-term goals, according to his "philosophy of simplification", which is the name he gives to his way of thinking. He hasn't stopped dreaming, but he is a realist.
"The dream is Tokyo, but when you dream it isn't about Tokyo, when you dream it is because you need the power to apply the dreams to your day. Dreaming for the sake of dreaming, just to feel good in the moment, is not a function of dreams. The function of dreaming is to give you a direction, a vision of where you want to go. And as such, with a vision and a path, you create a plan and you carry it out. This is exemplified in the routines that make you feel proud every day, that give you a reason to get up from your bed every day. Today I get out of bed with the feeling that I'll go to Tokyo one day, but that doesn't take away from how I'm going to live today. My greatest goal, the one I dream of, is to train every day as an Olympic champion would. In this way, I can finish the day, the week, the month or the year knowing that I have done everything in line with this objective, and I can be satisfied with myself."
My greatest goal, the one I dream of,
is to train every day as an Olympic champion would.
All his Olympic games
The dream began while watching Sydney 2000 on the television. And he fulfilled it. He has fulfilled it many times, not only at Rio 2016.
"The eight-year-old child watching the Games in Sydney didn't imagine that he could compete in one, not one little bit. I only wanted to be the fastest child in my class, in Toronto. Those were my Olympic Games," says Hortelano. Afterwards, his Olympic Games were Rio 2016. And after that, the most complicated of all, those that involved getting out of the hospital bed, touching the wall, returning to the track, overcoming injuries... and despite everything, he has continued to look on the bright side of things.
"Since the accident I see more colour in my life. Death is in the present, not in the future, even if we always see it as something far away. It scares you a little, but it contributes a lot to life. Without it, beauty wouldn't exist."
This way of seeing things, and of learning acceptance and patience, has built a better version of Bruno Hortelano. "Now I am a better athlete, even though I haven't been competing. You can study the subject but not take the final exam. Does that mean you haven't learnt anything? No, because you have learnt but you haven't had the opportunity to apply that knowledge. I have the lessons inside of me," he explains.
And with these lessons, and Tokyo 2020 on the horizon, he is building a path that, as of now, has no end. The straight line, the one that saved his life, is still waiting for the best version of Bruno Hortelano to pass through it.