Puerto Rico has long punched above its weight in the world of sports, producing a long line of luminaries who have shined at the highest levels of athletics including professional baseball, basketball, and boxing and beyond.
Through a seemingly endless stream of big league greats and an incredibly deep pool of champion prizefighters, Puerto Rico earned its moniker of All-Star Island over decades of triumphs and stellar play on top stages. Championship belts, trophies and other laurels are not limited to the ring or diamond though, with islanders making their marks on tracks, the gridiron and Olympic podiums just to name a few of the ever-expanding range of arenas where Puerto Ricans are adding to the Caribbean island’s outsized athletic legacy.
Nowhere are the exploits of these world-class competitors more closely tracked and justifiably celebrated than in Puerto Rico itself, which boasts a fan base that is unmatched in its passion and loyalty — and always ready to gather to cheer on their homegrown heroes wherever they are.
Any list of local legends would start with Carolina’s Roberto Clemente, the beloved Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder who remains alive in the hearts of islanders — and many others around the world for that matter — nearly a half-century after his tragic death while launching a humanitarian mission to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua. It could also include Monica Puig, the tennis ace from San Juan who swung her way to a historic gold medal at the 2016 Olympics and continues to climb up the WTA rankings. There simply isn’t enough room on these pages to run through all of gems who have sparkled on Major League diamonds, which have showcased the art of the “sweet science” above boxing canvases, which repeatedly steered thoroughbreds to the roses in high-stakes races.
But this story isn’t about looking back and taking stock of all of the achievements of Puerto Rico’s greats. It’s about providing a spotlight on the up-and-comers, the rising stars who are already writing their own chapters in the island’s storied sports history. Here’s a look at a few leading lights.
Adriana and Melanie Diaz
Ping pong may not spring to mind when thinking of Puerto Rican sports stars but that is changing fast thanks to Adriana and Melanie Diaz, sisters from the rural mountain town of Puerto Rico who have climbed into rarified air on the international table tennis scene.
In the process, they drove the popularity of the sport on the island, landing on advertisements, media tours, newspaper covers and even sponsorship by reggaeton godfather Daddy Yankee as they racked up medals in far-flung corners of the globe, often with boisterous, Puerto Rican-flag waving Boricua fans on hand.
While Puerto Rico’s ascendency in table tennis may raise some eyebrows, it comes as no surprise that the dynamic Diaz duo would lead the way coming from a family where mom and dad, two other sisters and cousin Brian Afanador all played competitively.
Melanie and Adriana have drawn inspiration from, and comparisons to, trailblazing tennis titans Serena and Venus Williams, superstar siblings that rewrote the book in their sport. Still, Adriana looks much closer to home for a main mentor.
Adriana began making a name for herself on the big stage while still and adolescent and made history at just 15 when she became the first Puerto Rican female table tennis player to qualify for an Olympic Games, earning a spot to face off against the best of the best of the best in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
The spotlight grew even brighter in summer 2019, when the teenager won the gold medal in women’s singles at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru to book a return trip to the 2020 summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. She also sided with Melanie to swing to the top of the podium in women’s doubles. Oh, for good measure, the dynamic Diaz duo and fellow national team member Daniely Rios also combined to take the team gold. After sweeping gold in the Pan Ams, the young Puerto Rican women were met by swarms of fans upon touching down at the island’s international airport to kick off a proper homecoming party.
Maria Fernanda Torres
Maria Fernanda Torres has come a long way from her hometown of Trujillo Alto, swinging her way to a place in history as the first Puerto Rican woman to earn full LPGA Tour status, beating the odds and the elements after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island in 2017.
And to think Torres may never have picked up a set of clubs given her early focus on equestrian pursuits, which luckily included frequent horse rides near a golf course and a pair of parents sharp enough to ask whether their 8-year-old daughter wanted to try her hand on the links.
Rising through the adolescent ranks in Puerto Rico, home to no shortage of world-class golf courses, Torres gained exposure to stateside colleges through the American Journal Golf Association and took her talents to the University of Florida. On the path to graduating with a degree in Family, Youth and Community Science, the Gator notched five tournament victories, set the school record for lowest single-season scoring average and was named the Southeastern Conferences Golfer of the Year.
Soft-spoken with a million-watt smile, Torres generally lets her game do the talking, although she’s not shy about expressing her joy in playing on the sun-kissed and verdant golf courses of her native island.
After turning pro in December 2017, Torres hit the ground swinging in her first year on the LPGA Tour, carding two top 10 finishes in her rookie campaign and setting the stage for what is shaping up as a bright career in the top-tier of women’s golf.
Irad and Jose Ortiz
Jockeys Irad and Jose Ortiz surged out of the gate and charged to the front of the pack in the hotly competitive sphere of professional horseracing, both racking up an impressive array of victories and awards — and notching hundreds of millions of dollars in winnings — while still in their early 20s.
Hailing from the town of Trujillo Alto, the Ortiz brothers have horseracing in their blood and are natural-born jockeys. Their father ran an off-track betting parlor that covered Hipodromo Camarero, the premier Puerto Rico track where a grandfather and uncle raced, and where the Ortiz brothers got their starts before making the jump to the high-stakes New York circuits while still in their teens.
Family lore says their father would outfit the young Ortiz boys as jockeys, complete with a pillow turned saddle positioned in front of the television on important race days.
Irad and younger brother Jose — the siblings are separated by just 18 months — went nearly stride for stride in their wildly successful young careers, with back-to-back first place finishes in the Belmont Stakes, a jewel in the vaunted Triple Crown. Irad struck first, steering Creator to the roses with a stunning sprint down the stretch in 2016. Jose followed suit a year later in equally dramatic fashion astride Tapwrit.
The Ortiz brothers have also both notched Eclipse Awards, the top honor bestowed annually to the winningest jockey of the year throughout North America, with Jose taking the title in 2016 followed by Irad in 2017. A year later the elder Ortiz won ESPN’s Espy Award as top jockey.
While their rise to the forefront of one of the world’s most risky sports has been marked by an intense rivalry, no less clear is their respect and support for one another in a pursuit that regularly sees them careening around crowded tracks on half-ton thoroughbreds at speeds nearing 40 miles per hour. The brothers share a deep degree of love for the horses they pilot to glory and have an uncommon ability to calm the animals,
The Ortiz brothers are known in racing circles for their horsemanship and command of all aspects of the jockeys’ craft, but each has his own distinctive style in the saddle. The hard-charging Irad rides with a rare aggression that reminds race observers of John Velázquez, the legendary Puerto Rican jockey who is among the winningest in the history of the sport. Jose on the other hand is celebrated as a sneaky tactician with a knack for putting his horse in the right place at the right time.
Tipping the scales at around 114 pounds, both brothers are known for their overall athleticism, off the charts work ethics, and powerful passion for racing, pulling on their boots and strapping up races of all stakes for the sheer joy of competing in the saddle. Those traits are sure to serve the youngsters well in a sport where age is just a number.
Alexis Diaz is a 25-year-old right-hand pitcher from Barrio Daguao in the town of Naguabo that made his big league debut as a rookie reliever on the Cincinnati Reds 2022 Opening Day.
Diaz had not pitched above A-ball in the minors before pitching in 35 games out of the bullpen for the Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts last season. He compiled a 3-1 record with a 3.83 ERA and 70 strikeouts in 42 ½ innings for Chattanooga.
Drafted in the 12th round of the 2015 MLB Draft from Juan Jose Manuez High School, Diaz has spent his entire career in the Reds organization.
He spent time with the Rookie-level Arizona Complex League Reds in 2015, 2017 and 2019, the Appalachian League Greeneville Reds in 2018, the Midwest League’s Dayton Dragons in 2019, before spending all of 2021 with the Lookouts.
Baseball is in the blood of the Diaz family, Alexis’ brother Edwin, is the closer for the New York Mets.
This is Edwin’s seventh major league season. He led the American League with 57 saves as a member of the Seattle Mariners in 2018. Edwin compiled 173 career saves entering the 2022 season.