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'Win, dad, win!': Bethlehem's Darian Cruz aims for Olympic gold (WATCH)

Darian Cruz, who starred at Bethlehem Catholic and Lehigh University, will honor his grandparents by representing their native Puerto Rico when he wrestles at the Paris Olympics next month.

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Four-month-old Toi Cruz is babbling.

As he basks in the beauty of his son nestled in his arms, Darian Cruz is beaming.

Then he knits his brow and wonders: What are you trying to say, my precious boy? What are you trying to tell me? I wish I knew.

The child gazes up at Cruz, melting his heart in ways only an infant can.

Still babbling, Toi’s eyes widen. He smiles.

With his father about to wrestle at the Paris Olympics in a few weeks, it’s anyone’s guess what the boy desperately wants to say.

Here’s one guess:

“Win, dad, win!”

Darian Cruz
Darian Cruz will be supported by daughter, Carter Lynn, 3, and son, Toi, 4 months and dozens of family and friends when he competes in wrestling at the Paris Olympics next month.

No pressure, no diamonds

Thomas Carlyle, the 19th century Scottish essayist and philosopher, wrestled not against opponents on a mat, but with words and ideas.

As Cruz, a Bethlehem Catholic High School and Lehigh University graduate, prepares to wrestle in the blinding spotlight of the Olympic Games in Paris next month, he has long subscribed to what is perhaps Carlyle’s most famous quotation:

“No pressure, no diamonds.”

“You see some guys at the highest level, on the biggest stage, just crumble,” said Cruz, 29, who will honor his grandmother and late grandfather by representing their native Puerto Rico in the 57 kg (125-pound) weight class.

"I'm more than ready to accomplish this goal and this dream."
Darian Cruz

“But I never really feared the pressure or had any doubts that I could succeed in those moments. Ever since I was a little kid, I always wanted to be in those moments, having those eyes on me, never shying away from it, just to prove how great I could be.

“I always wanted to get to those moments and shine. The Olympics is one of those moments.”

Strolling along the Allentown street on which he was raised, Cruz confessed his ultimate goal is not merely to wrestle well or be satisfied with any medal. One need look no further for the answer than the address of his fundraising website: cruztogold.com.

“I feel I’m getting better every time out,” said Cruz, who for the past few months has been training and competing locally and in Hungary, Italy and Japan.

Today, Sunday, July 7, he's scheduled to compete at the Spanish Grand Prix in Madrid.

“I’m gaining more and more confidence to just let it fly," he said. "Leading up to the Olympics, my focus was to sharpen all of my tools. And I have.

“I know I’m ready.”

History of success

The most significant moment of Cruz’s wrestling life is a month away.

The wrestling competitions at the Paris Olympics are Aug. 5-11 at Grand Palais Éphémère in Champ de Mars in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. His first match is Aug. 8.

He is unseeded, but unbowed.

“I know I can do this,” he said.

“I think his chances of medaling are great. You know what they say — on any given day. The thing about Darian is, he rises to the occasion. He can do this.”
Kerry McCoy, executive director of the Lehigh Valley Wrestling Club in Bethlehem

If the past is truly prologue, great things may come his way in the City of Light.

Victory has been a familiar companion to Cruz, whose combined record in high school and college is a gaudy 273-28, a winning rate of 90.7%.

Cruz’s resume glows. He won back-to-back PIAA Class AA championships at Becahi and was a three-time All-American and an NCAA champion at Lehigh. He’s medaled in tournaments throughout the world.

In March, Cruz punched his ticket to Paris with a 2-2 criteria win over USA’s Zane Richards in the semifinal round of the Pan American Olympic qualifier in Acapulco, Mexico.

“He’s ready,” said his coach, Kerry McCoy, executive director of the Lehigh Valley Wrestling Club in Bethlehem.

As a two-time Olympian, four-time World Cup champion, three-time All-American at Penn State and a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, McCoy knows what it takes.

“I think his chances of medaling are great,” he said. “You know what they say — on any given day. The thing about Darian is, he rises to the occasion. He can do this.”

'They won't play me'

Randy Cruz Sr. leaned forward on the sofa of his Allentown home. The conversation about his son qualifying for the Olympics came to a screeching halt.

A father paused to admire not the branches that bear his son’s fruit of success, but to recount the roots of disappointment that fed his desire to compete.

“Darian picked up everything well,” the elder Cruz said while seated beside his wife, Heather. “He played baseball and football and was skilled and so quick. His balance was incredible.

“But once he got to middle school and high school, he was so small. He’d be overlooked because there were kids 6 feet tall.

“He’d come home crying when he was in middle school because he said the coach didn’t play him much in the game. He’d say, ‘I wanted to play! They won’t play me! I can play!’”

Lehigh University
Darian Cruz embraces his father, Randy Sr., after winning the 125-pound NCAA Championship for Lehigh University in 2017.

So the boy who some coaches believed was too small to play followed his father and brother, Randy, who became a PIAA champion for Becahi and an All-American at Lehigh, into wrestling full time.

And became a giant.

“When Darian got into wrestling, you could see his ability right away,” his father said.

“We saw what he could be very early on. Because of the weight [classes], everything was now equal. And he was committed to winning.”

Of his son’s decision to represent Puerto Rico in the Olympics, his father said the decision did not come easy.

“Darian thought long and hard about it,” he said. It was a struggle for him to kind of make sense of what it might mean, how would things change.

“He had represented the U.S. in the past," the elder Cruz said. "But I think he realized that he'd have more opportunity by representing Puerto Rico, to at least get himself to his ultimate goal — the Olympic Games.

"And also honor my mother and father.”

Lehigh University
Darian Cruz, after winning the 125-pound NCAA Championship for Lehigh University in 2017.

Cruz, wife deliver

Time was running out on Cruz's chance to get to Paris.

Trailing 2-1 to Richards, who held a 3-0 record against Cruz, the Lehigh grad dug deep. With seven seconds left in the third period, he forced his opponent out of bounds to pick up a point and tie the score 2-2.

"So, I peek at the clock and there's like 40 seconds left and I'm losing by a point," Cruz said. "So I step on the gas. I take a shot and almost take him down.

"Then we get in this scramble. We're on the edge of the mat. Time is ticking. Then I kind of like sled push him, lift him to get his knees off the mat and drove him out."

The referee ruled no point. The Puerto Rican team challenged it. It was reviewed and overturned.

"They made the right call and I was off to the Olympics," Cruz said.

Immediately after Cruz delivered an Olympic-qualifying performance, he was off to the airport to hurry back to the Lehigh Valley to watch another delivery — that of his son.

"The flight I was scheduled to take to Newark was delayed," he said. "So I had to get a flight to Atlanta and then to ABE. My wife was delivering at (Lehigh Valley Health Network-Muhlenberg) by C-section.

"I got there in time. I didn't want to miss it. I had to be there."

Checking the boxes

Pat Santoro knew early on.

Santoro, Lehigh University's head wrestling coach, first saw Darian Cruz wrestle in eighth grade. They met at Becahi, their shared alma mater.

In Cruz, Santoro quickly identified the check marks of a champion: skills, dedication, goal setting, self-belief, courage and focus.

"Regardless of what happens, I just want what’s best for Darian. He is an amazing human being. You will not find a better representative for wrestling and the Lehigh Valley than him.”
Lehigh University head wrestling coach Pat Santoro

In Cruz, Santoro saw himself. As a 126-pounder at Becahi, Santoro was a third-place finisher at the 1984 PIAA Championships and two-time NCAA champion and three-time All-American at the University of Pittsburgh.

In college, he fashioned a 167-13 record, a 92.8 winning percentage.

“Darian has a belief system that makes him a champion,” Santoro said at Lehigh’s Caruso Wrestling Complex. “He understands that after taking a loss, you adjust immediately. He has great passion and understanding.

“He has the courage to train hard and let it fly in a match. You could see he was special right away. He is one of the best athletes and wrestlers I’ve ever coached.”

Santoro will be in Paris hoping for that magical moment.

“It’d be special,” he said of Cruz winning a medal.

“But regardless of what happens, I just want what’s best for Darian. He is an amazing human being. You will not find a better representative for wrestling and the Lehigh Valley than him.”

'It means a lot'

The emotion of the moment kidnaps her words.

Lucy DeLabar is asked to recall the moment her grandson informed her he would represent her native Puerto Rico in the Olympics.

The voice on the other end of the phone goes silent for a moment. Pride for her country and appreciation for her grandson’s loving decision for his abuela (grandmother) has taken her breath away — then and now.

“I don’t worry anymore. He’s all grown up and makes us all proud at every turn.”
Lucy DeLabar, Darian Cruz's grandmother

“It’s hard to express just what Darian deciding to wrestle for my home country means to me,” said DeLabar, 73.

She was born near San Juan, immigrated to the United States when she was 6 months old and moved to Bethlehem when she was 7.

“I’ve been watching Darian wrestle for such a long time,” she said. “I learned about wrestling because my sons wrestled. Now my grandchildren. I followed them all.”

Her grandson is a multiple champion now, standing at the precipice of wrestling immortality, the summit clearly in view.

But DeLabar said she remembers a time before all the victories and medals, back when a little boy traded in team sports disappointment for individual challenges.

“Darian was always so tiny, so small back then,” she said. “I would go everywhere to watch him, to support him. But I used to be so concerned he would get hurt.”

And today?

“I don’t worry anymore,” DeLabar said. “He’s all grown up and makes us all proud at every turn.”

Beating the odds

The moment Darian Cruz has dreamed of his entire life is here.

All the hard work, all the superlative coaching from Jeff Karam at Becahi, McCoy, Santoro and Bobby Weaver, the three-time PIAA champion at Easton, Olympic gold medalist and member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

Cruz beating the near-impossible global odds — 1 in 500,000 people — of becoming an Olympics competitor.

Cruz bidding to become only the second Olympic medalist in wrestling for Puerto Rico since Jaime Espinal won silver at 190 pounds in 2012.

All of it leading to this incredible moment across the sea.

“It’s going to be so exciting,” Cruz said. “Being in the Olympics. Having my whole family there — my wife, Kayla, our two kids, my parents, my abuela, Kayla’s family — my coaches and 15 to 20 of my wrestling friends from Lehigh will be great.

“I just want to represent my family, Lehigh, Beca and the Lehigh Valley the best I can. They are the reasons I’ve achieved so much success in my life. I can’t thank them enough.”

Fast-forward to Aug. 11.

The championship match is over. Darian Cruz removes his headgear and shakes his opponent’s hand. The referee raises Cruz’s arm, signifying victory.

The crowd is cheering. Camera lights are flashing. Family and friends are in tears.

Cruz’s moment has arrived. All of 5 feet 3 inches tall, he stands atop the medal platform. He bends toward an Olympics official who slips the gold medal around his neck.

He waves to the crowd. He stands proudly as the national anthem of Puerto Rico — “La Borinqueña ” — is played.

A dream realized. Grandparents honored.

What, Cruz is asked, might that reality feel like?

“Even talking about it, I start to get chills and sweat a little bit,” he said. “Even as a young kid, thinking about standing on top of that podium, thinking about the amount of joy and pride I will bring to my family, my team, people who have supported me and myself I think is going to speak volumes.

“I’m more than ready to accomplish this goal and this dream.”

For himself and so many others — including his babbling baby son with the indiscernible request.

Call it a Toi Story.