Costa Rica is best known as a tourist destination and local fans closely follow their football team, who has played in three FIFA World Cups. But on the track, a young sprinter has emerged and is ready to put this Central American nation on the world athletics map.
Nery Brenes, a 200m and 400m specialist, is in Valencia to contest his first World Indoor Championships, marking Costa Rica's return to this major competition.
After a major breakthrough at the World Championships in Osaka last year, where he improved his personal best by nearly a second (46.00 to 45.01) and made it to the semifinals, Brenes views Valencia as another major step towards his Olympic goals in Beijing 2008.
He already tested the new track at the Palau Luis Puig in the Spanish city, where he ran 46.99 to break the national record by over a second, on 9 February, ahead of Grenada's two-time World indoor champion Alleyne Francique. He raced again in Athens, where he clocked 47.14.
Costa Rica has only attended three World Indoor Championships, in 1987, 2001 and 2004, but no athlete has advanced from the first round. Brenes wants to change that history.
Born in the Caribbean coast city of Limon in 1985, the oldest of three siblings began to practise athletics in 1997 and made his international debut in 2004 when he improved the 400m national junior record (47.90) and finished third at the Central American and Caribbean Junior Championships in Mexico.
In 2005, he improved to 46.42 to win the Central American gold at home in San Jose, but failed to move to the semifinals at the World Championships in Helsinki. In a low-par season, he could not even contest the finals at the 2006 Central American and Caribbean Games in Cartagena.
But 2007 marked his breakthrough when he ran 46.00 to win bronze at the inaugural NACAC Senior Championships in El Salvador, followed by his solid performances in Osaka.
Under the guidance of Walter Salazar, a sports psychology grad from the University of Arizona, Brenes has set ambitious goals for his career. With Michael Johnson as a role model, he wants to become the first non-US athlete to break the 44-second barrier and reach the Olympic final in Beijing.
But more importantly, he wants to promote athletics in football-crazy Costa Rica, rally more support for the sport, especially among children. Viewed as an inspiration for the youth in his country, he has proven "You can progress in your career with efforts and sacrifice. Don't give up to adversities. You have to fight and build up a champion's character."
Javier Clavelo Robinson, Néstor Calixto and Vanessa Barrantes for the IAAF