by Willie Edwards
SWTJC Public Information
The year escapes my memory, but I still remember watching three of Uvalde's all-time greatest distance runners one afternoon as they glided around Uvalde's Honey Bowl track.
Their long, graceful strides made their running seem effortless. They looked as if they were barely breaking a sweat, as they flew past my huffing and puffing 50-plus-year-old body, lapping me like I was standing still. Watching Ruben Ortiz, Pete Belman and James Ortiz run side-by-side around the track was a beautiful sight.
An even more beautiful sight was watching them take off together in the recent Southwest Texas Junior College Turkey Trot Fun Run held Nov. 19 in Uvalde.
A little over five years ago, on June 5, 2006, Uvalde's James Ortiz woke up in Austin's Brackenridge Hospital. He had no memory of the accident on the Texas State University campus in San Marcos that landed him in the hospital with his right leg severed just below the knee.
"It sounds silly now, but when I saw my leg was gone I remember thinking, ‘What am I going to do? I have a race tomorrow,'" Ortiz said. The Texas State track star, who was a member of four Southland Conference championship teams and still holds the school record in the 1,500-meter, ran his first race since his accident in the 27th annual SWTJC Turkey Trot.
He said his biggest fear entering the race was that he would hate the experience. "This was the first time I'd ever run a race knowing I didn't have a chance to win," Ortiz said. "More than anything else, I was scared that I would absolutely hate the whole experience."
But that wasn't the case. He set a goal of 20 minutes for the 5K run and he beat that goal with a time of 19:27, finishing ninth overall.
"My leg is still sore to the touch, but I'm glad I've run my first race and I wouldn't have done it anywhere but in Uvalde at the Turkey Trot," Ortiz said a few days after this year's event.
According to Ortiz, the first race he ever won was the Turkey Trot Kids Mile when he was a 12-year-old. He went on to win the 5K portion of the annual race several times including three straight titles from 2003-2005.
"My mom Pura Ortiz and my sister Laura Diaz and her family, still live in Uvalde, so it's always good to come home and see family," Ortiz said. "But it's more than that. The Turkey Trot has always been my favorite race and this community has been unbelievable in supporting me and my family."
While he hasn't run a competitive race in over five years, Ortiz has been anything but sedentary. In fact, he has barely slowed down since the day the bicycle he was riding to class at Texas State skidded into the path of a garbage truck and changed his life forever.
Immediately following the accident, Ortiz spent a month in the hospital and underwent numerous surgeries before heading back to classes in the fall. Ortiz had been selected captain of the Texas State track team for the 2006-2007 school year.
"After the accident I had a lot of guilt about letting our team down," Ortiz said. "I offered to give up the final year of my scholarship but the school said no."
His recovery was slow at first and he had to spend a full year on crutches while he waited for his skin to get stronger and the grafts to heal enough for him to get a prosthetic.
"I was in lots of pain and my weight dropped to under 100 pounds," Ortiz said. But Ortiz kept pursuing his education and in December of 2007 was awarded his Bachelor of Science Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies.
Shortly after graduating, he landed a job as the men's and women's track and cross country coach at the University of the Southwest in Hobbs, NM. During his time in Hobbs, Ortiz coached numerous All-Red-River Athletic Conference award winners and he produced five NAIA track & field national qualifiers. He also recruited the school's first ever NAIA individual national champion for track and field.
From Hobbs, he was recruited and took the head track and cross country job at Colby Community College in Colby, KS. On Nov. 12 of this year his team finished 9th in the NJCAA Cross Country Championships, the highest national finish in school history. Ortiz was also named Region 6 Indoor Track and Field Coach of the Year for 2011.
His programs have experienced academic success as well as athletic success. In 2010-11, the half marathon team was named NJCAA Academic Team of the Year and the track & field program was named NJCAA Coaches Association Academic Team of the Year.
The transition from runner to coach has forced Ortiz to develop a new mind set. "As a runner all I really had to worry about was myself. Now I have to take 30 members of my team into consideration and find the best way to train and coach them to reach their potential," Ortiz said.
When he is not coaching, Ortiz has been working toward his master's degree in sports administration at East Central University in Ada, OK. He is currently eight hours short of earning his master's.
He is also engaged to Tenley Determan from College Station, an instructor at Colby Community College. The couple met at Texas State where Determan also ran cross country and track.
While Ortiz said he hopes to run more races in the years to come, running is certainly not his top priority. "Right now, I want to concentrate on being a good coach," Ortiz said. "As I was training for this race, I told my team that I wanted them to let me know if they ever felt like my running was hurting my coaching."
His team apparently doesn't think so right now, as they inundated their coach with well-wishes via text messages prior to and after the Turkey Trot.
Let me add my own well-wishes. Congratulations, James. In my opinion, the truest measure of any athlete always has and always will be – heart. Your participation in the 27th annual SWTJC Turkey Trot not only speaks to your heart, but to the heart of this community.
In this season of thanksgiving and hope, you have given us plenty of both.
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