Juan was just a freshman in the backseat of his friend’s car when he went outside of the lane. The driver swerved into oncoming traffic, collided with a car and flew off the road. Juan didn’t know if he would regain control.
“I knew from that second, I might not live from this,” Juan said of the accident.
Juan knows that life is not an individual sport. He has individual goals — goals of making it to state and running under 50 seconds in the 400 meter dash — and he does everything in his power to make these goals a reality. But life is a team sport; he can never forget how the actions of others can impact his goals.
He can’t forget the impact of the tree on the car. The glass on his skin. The way his friends laid motionless in the backseat.
“[The driver]’s body was halfway out and he looked at me, tears and blood mixing in his face,” Juan said.
He can’t forget that. The driver made a mistake and they all paid for it — he had been drinking.
“Because of his mistakes, I’ve got scars on my body that will never go away,” Juan said.
Juan couldn’t feel his legs when he woke up in the hospital two days later. The doctors had put him under heavy anesthesia while they removed each individual shard of glass that had pierced its way into his muscles. He was banged up, bruised, scarred and numbed — but he was OK. He would run again.
Juan has been in the driver’s seat since the crash. His mother, Mary An Joers Pestano Ramos, doesn’t have to tell him what foods to eat anymore. She doesn’t have to tell him that quitting is unacceptable. She forced him into playing football, but no one told him to run track. Juan sets his own goals now. He runs out front during drop out 200s and speedmakers. He rides his bike to the gym because accepting a ride from his mom would mean losing an opportunity to get better. He runs another five miles after an hour long workout and the bike ride home. Juan wants success as badly as he wants to breathe.
“A lot of times, he might not hit his own goals, even when he did great in my mind,” Mary An said. “But to him, it’s not enough. Since it’s not enough to him, I tell him it’s not enough. I know that’s what he needs.”
Juan needs to be pushed. Before moving to Kansas at the beginning of this year, he attended a school less than half East’s size in Hickman County, TN. He didn’t have people pushing him.
“I was the fastest guy at the school and there wasn’t much competition,” Juan said. “But when I got to sectionals, I met a lot of guys who were better. I wound up placing fourth and my time didn’t match up.”
Juan knew that being the best in a small town wasn’t good enough; he would have to be better if he wanted to make state. He got a fresh start when his family moved to the East area. It didn’t take long for him to make an impression with sprinting coach Brie Meschke.
“He came and visited me at the beginning of the year and told me that he had run at his previous school and his times were very competitive,” Meschke said. “I was super excited, but a lot of times you hear about kids and it doesn’t pan out to what you think it’s going to be — but he’s the real deal.”
Juan proved his talent at the very first time trial, running a 52 in the 400, but Meschke saw plenty of room for improvement.
“He had a lot of raw talent, but didn’t have much instruction before,” Meschke said. “It’s been really fun to help him with that.”
Juan was on his own in Tennessee. His coaches expected him to carry the team, but offered little support. And it wasn’t easy being a black athlete on a predominantly white team — segregation is still a reality in Hickman County.
“There was me, my cousin and a Vietnamese boy on the team,” Juan said. “And when we’d go into the locker room, everyone else’s locker would be on one side. Leaving me, my cousin and the Vietnamese kid by ourselves. We didn’t care, because we played our hearts out on the court.”
Juan isn’t just part of the team at East, he’s part of a brotherhood. Along with junior Carter Olander and seniors Joe Lewis and Jack Fay, Juan has achieved great success with the 4×400 relay team. The group of runners quickly accepted him.
“He’s really fit into the track culture,” Lewis said. “He works hard and the team loves him.”
Juan has developed into a far better runner this season because he now shares his goal with the entire team. Lewis begins the race with a quick burst. Olander gains ground on the rest of the field. Juan chases down the leader. And Fay holds onto the lead. Each runner has an impact on the outcome of the race.
“When you run by yourself and you don’t run your best, only you are disappointed,” Lewis said. “But if you run in the 4×400 and don’t run your best, you’ve let down three other people.”
Juan knows all about being let down. He’s experienced the helplessness of freefall and the unforgiving crash of a car. He’s learned from his scars; he’s changed his work ethic, rebuilt himself and taken over the driver’s seat. He knows about the impact that his actions have on his teammates. But he’s doing everything he can to make it positive.
“I think, ‘what if this was my last day?’ Could I honestly say that I gave it my all?” Juan said. “I want to benefit, and have others benefit from my actions.”