Retired NCO a champion in and out of the Army: Puerto Rico National Champion in racquetball
May 1, 2009
FORT HOOD, Texas - At the tender age of 22, Miguel A. Santiago-Cruz, from Carolina, Puerto Rico, joined the United States Army to do something different.
He knew that the Army offered opportunities as a Soldier, but he soon discovered that the Army gave him the opportunity to pursue his civilian interest in racquetball, which ultimately led to Santiago-Cruz winning two individual silver medals during the Pan American Racquetball Championship in Cali, Columbia in April 2009 and becoming Puerto Rico's National Champion.
Santiago-Cruz, who retired as a master sergeant after a 27-year military career, currently works as a training specialist at Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center. During the last 11 years, he has been a member of the Puerto Rican National Racquetball team (35 plus and Elite Division).
"Winning the Puerto Rico National Championship has been one of my most heartfelt victories," said Santiago-Cruz. "It was special for me; it's also a good feeling to represent your country. That win is pretty high on my list of accomplishments on the court," he added.
While he was accomplished on the court, Santiago-Cruz said he was not so accomplished in communicating. Going from the Puerto Rican language to English at age 22 was not easy.
"It was difficult for me to adapt to people and languages from different backgrounds," said Santiago-Cruz. "It was pretty hard but I dealt with it. In the end, we all spoke the same language: Army."
Santiago-Cruz attended basic training at Fort Dix, N.J. and advanced individual training supply warehouse specialist at Fort Lee, Va. He worked in various positions within his Military Occupational Specialty and mastered them as he went up the ranks.
"I made it my responsibility to seek out leadership positions," said Santiago-Cruz. After his third year of service, Santiago-Cruz became a non-commissioned officer. "It felt good to make sergeant," he said.
As a leader, he encouraged his Soldiers to learn as much as possible about everything. After getting his stripes, Santiago focused on training his Soldiers, "Taking care of Soldiers is an NCO's major responsibility." He talks about training and how important it is for Soldiers to survive in any environment.
His military leadership style was to be flexible and considerate of others. "I let my Soldiers participate in everything, I encouraged them to go out and be involved."
Santiago-Cruz said that he first grabbed a racquet during his assignment in Korea after a fellow Soldier invited him for a game of racquetball. That initiation would change his life. He began encouraging his Soldiers to participate in sports.
As a member of the National Puerto Rican Racquetball team, Santiago-Cruz competed in countries such as Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela, Hawaii, Columbia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Germany, Korea, Japan, and Mexico.
He played on the All-Army Racquetball team for 15 years, and won the Armed Forces Championship three times.
Playing in both the athlete and military divisions, he is currently on the USA Top 10 Men's National Ranking 45 plus list.
And still competing. He was the winner of the Texas State 50-Plus Single championship in Dallas in March 2009.
With more than 15 years of experience, Santiago-Cruz still gets nervous right before a competition.
"Major competitions still give me the jitters," said Santiago-Cruz. "Every competition is tough; there are a lot of good players. Even in my age bracket, it's pretty tough here in Texas, especially when I play people that are 30 years younger than me."
Much like a Soldier trains to be mission ready, Santiago also trains to become better on the court and to keep his performance and game in check at age 50. Running, swimming, drills, and lifting weights are all part of his training routine so he is in good competition condition.
After 27 years in the U.S. Army, receiving the Meritorious Service Medal, and retiring at the rank of master sergeant, the Soldier and racquetball player folded his uniform and retired in April 2008 at the age of 49.
"I don't miss wearing the uniform," said Santiago. "I really like the Army, I wanted to stay longer but I reached my limit; the good thing is I'm still working for the military."
As a training specialist responsible for the Digital Training Management System at CRDAMC, Santiago-Cruz said he had no trouble during his transition from Soldier to civilian.
"It's different. I don't have to do PT in the morning, and I work with a smaller group unlike before where I had a ton of Soldiers in my unit," he said.
After retirement, Santiago-Cruz found his military principles and ethics had become engrained in his civilian character. He continues to lead with sound advice and respect for the military.
"If I have to correct somebody I will, but mostly I give advice to service members about opportunities available to them," said Santiago.
At age 50, Santiago is still a competitor.
"Racquetball is a sport that you play for life. I grew with the sport; I want to play until I'm 70 or even 80 years old. They have a division in national for that age bracket and they have good players," he said, smiling.
"Anyone interested in playing or learning can stop by the Abrams Gym; we're there from 5 until 8 p.m. during the week. There are a lot of good players here at Fort Hood and we're always looking for new blood. If you want competition, come to Abrams," he laughed.