The connection between Javier Torres and his heritage waned ever so slightly in recent years.
The last time he visited Mexico, he was 12 and his family there was plentiful. They were leisure trips, fun trips, but they ended when many of his relatives moved to the U.S.
It wasn't until recently that the 19-year-old returned. A 2006 graduate of South Medford High and a national-caliber boxer, Torres went back to his parents' birth country a man. This time, it was all business.
Torres had been at a crossroads with his boxing when he received an invitation to try out for the Mexico Olympic team. He jumped at the opportunity and, in the first week of December, won four bouts at the Olympic Trials in Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas, to capture his division and become the national team heavyweight.
With it comes a shot at the Olympics.
Torres and his teammates must advance through a qualifying tournament in the spring to get into the 2008 Games in Beijing, China, in August, and he's confident of doing so.
Torres, in his 10th year as a member of the Bulldog Boxing Club, does not take lightly this turn of events that steered him, at least temporarily, away from starting a professional career but could put him on the world stage.
"I'm really proud that I have the honor to go and represent the country of my parents and my culture," says Torres, who was born in Los Angeles. "Don't get me wrong, I'm proud to be an American. But it feels pretty good. It's always been a dream of mine."
His mother, Maria, is from Jalisco. His father, Javier Sr., is from neighboring Zacatecas. They weren't able to attend the Olympic Trials, and he couldn't wait to share with them the news of triumph.
His thoughts were on them in the moments after a dominant, 14-0 championship victory.
"I thought about my family and how happy they would be that I'm going somewhere," he says.
"They feel real proud," says Torres, who survived a slugfest over the defending champion in the semifinals, then overcame a hyperextended left elbow in the final. "It's, like, unexplainable. Words can't express what they feel for me to go out and represent what Mexicans are all about. It's toughness in the ring, even when you're bleeding and your guts are hanging out, if you're able to stand up and able to throw punches, you still have to go out and continue the fight.
"That's something my dad told me since I was little: Never give up. Even if you have to fight with one hand, you have to keep fighting."
Keep fighting he will.
Torres has an amateur record of 52-16, and this is his third national championship. The first two were junior titles.
He leaves Sunday for Mexico City, where he'll work out with the team until it embarks for a couple training camps, first in Europe, then in San Diego. The camps are two weeks, culminating in bouts against alternate fighters on those country's Olympic teams.
In an interesting twist, Mike Wilson, the two-time national superheavyweight champion from Central Point who has been Torres' sparring partner for several years, is expected to fight in San Diego, albeit in a different division. Wilson didn't make the U.S. Olympic team but remains in the national program.
Torres wanted desperately to become a U.S. Olympian, but he was one of the casualties of the stiffer competition here.
"Everybody is in shape and everybody has skills," he says.
His last hope was in the Western Trials in May in Salt Lake City. Torres lost in the semifinals on a difficult decision — which has been a pattern in his career, says coach Jim Pedrojetti. A win would have sent him to the national championships and could have been a springboard to the U.S. Olympic Trials.
"That was a heartbreaking decision," says Pedrojetti, who took Torres under his wing almost the instant he entered the Bulldog gym as a shy, wide-eyed youngster. "He's had some real bad, bogus decisions that were crazy. There were a lot of tears. Most people would have given up by now. I can count three national championships that I thought we won, and it just didn't happen."
Torres took some time off after the Western Trials to "get my head straight."
Unwilling to wait for his next chance at the Olympics, when he'd be 24, Torres considered turning pro. There was casual discussion with Pedrojetti about putting on a card locally, but before that materialized, another door opened.
Torres had become acquainted with junior middleweight star Fernando Vargas during the Police Athletic League championships last fall in Oxnard, Calif., where Vargas resides.
As Vargas prepared for his much-ballyhooed fight with Ricardo Mayorga last month, he remembered the strapping teenager Torres, who is 6-foot-3, 198 pounds, quick on his feet and strong enough to lift opponents off the canvas with powerful blows.
When training in the gym here, Pedrojetti dons hand mitts that are targets for Torres to punch and thick foam padding around his midsection to absorb body blows.
"He still leaves bruises on me," says the coach. He's felt the bludgeoning of the mitts and imagined, "Wow, that could be my face. There's no way I'd get in the ring with this guy."
Which made Torres a perfect fit for a champion like Vargas.
Torres was invited to be part of Vargas' training camp in Southern California for the two months preceding what would be a loss to Mayorga. While there, Torres competed in a tournament. He lost his bout but impressed a scout who was recruiting fighters for Mexico.
Only then did Torres realize his Olympic dream was alive.
He applied for dual citizenship, continued his training and, at the end of November, made his way back to Mexico for the first time in years.
Torres recorded first-round technical knockouts in his first two fights. That set up an epic battle with defending champ Ventura Barrera, in which each fighter rallied from deficits, buckling the other's knees in process.
Going into the fourth and final round, Barrera led 11-9. As they fought, Torres peeked at the big scoreboard and knew he had to dig down.
"He was trying to take my dream away," says Torres. "We were both dog-tired. I dug deep and threw punches from all kinds of angles and moved from side to side."
They were deadlocked at 19-19 with 20 seconds left, says Torres, when he faked a body shot to a fatigued Barrera, who dropped his hands to protect. Torres followed with a left hook to the head that dropped the champion.
"This kid, he had heart, he got back up," says Torres. "Luckily, that was the point that won me the fight."
Afterward, Barrera congratulated Torres and praised him for being a warrior.
"If I was making a list of my best fights," says Torres, "that would be in the top five. The reason why is the meaning of the fight. The loser goes home, the winner advances. It was do or die."
In the final, Torres ignored the pain in his elbow and cruised past Carlos Solis.
His thoughts turned to his family, then to his future.
"I said to myself, I accomplished a mission here today, but it's not done," says Torres. "I don't have the gold medal hanging around my neck. I have to go home and keep working hard."
And keep dreaming big.
Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 776-4479, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org