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Meet The U.S. Olympic Flag Bearer You've Probably Never Heard Of

Eddy Alvarez , shown here during a game last month, will be one of the U.S. flag bearers in the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics.
Eddy Alvarez , shown here during a game last month, will be one of the U.S. flag bearers in the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics.

TOKYO — What do speed skating and baseball have in common?

U.S. Olympian and flag bearer Eddy Alvarez. He won a silver medal in speed skating at the Winter Games in Sochi in 2014, and is competing on the U.S. baseball team at the Tokyo Summer Olympics.

Otherwise, not much, as Alvarez joked in a recent interview: "I would say the only link is the fact that we go left. There's really nothing similar about them."

Alvarez, 31, was selected by his fellow athletes to be the flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony on Friday, along with U.S. women's basketball legend and household name Sue Bird. This will be Bird's fifth Olympics.

Alvarez is aiming to become just the sixth athlete ever to medal in both the Winter and Summer Games.

His Olympic dreams started with speed skating

Alvarez, who is first-generation Cuban American, started rollerblading in Florida when he was five years old.

"I was just cruising around the streets of South Beach and got scouted," he recently told Team USA. "Two ladies stopped my parents and said, 'This kid needs to try the sport of inline speed skating,' so I did and I remember falling in love with it and the thrill of racing."

He loved both skating and baseball while growing up in Miami – but years later, after a knee injury, he focused entirely on skating to try to make the Olympic team.

In 2014, he represented Team USA in the Sochi Winter Games in four events. Alvarez and his teammates took home a silver medal in the 5,000 meter relay. The team missed out on gold by just a fraction of a second against the team from Russia.

"When you're so close to winning and you have to stand on the podium and listen to someone else's anthem, it leaves just a little bit of that bittersweet feeling," Alvarez recently told the Miami Herald. "This trip is like a second chance."

When he got back from the Sochi Games, at the age of 24, Alvarez started charting his course into playing professional baseball as an infielder.

The White Sox accepted him into the team's minor league system, where he spent five seasons before he was traded to the Miami Marlins.

Last year, Alvarez made his major league debut.

USA's Eddy Alvarez (center) competed in speed skating during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Harry E. Walker / Tribune News Service via Getty Images
USA's Eddy Alvarez (center) competed in speed skating during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

That gave him some experience at playing without in-person spectators, which will come in handy during the Olympics.

"I have some experience with the no fan thing. Do I like it? Absolutely not. I absolutely hate it. At the same time, I understand the precautions they are taking; it's still an honor to represent my country and the goal is still to bring home a medal," he told Team USA.

The stars aligned for Alvarez when baseball returned to the Games

Baseball is returning to the Olympics for the first time since 2008. It's a sport that is very popular in Japan, and the host country was able to successfully push for its inclusion. That meant the stars aligned for Alvarez to make his return to the Games.

His return is now extra sweet. Alvarez was visibly moved when his coach gave him the news that he'd been selected as flag bearer, as his teammates cheered.

"As you can probably tell, I'm extremely emotional right now," he said in a video released by USA Baseball.

In an Instagram post later, he wrote, "I must say this feels way more than just a personal achievement."

"The significance runs much deeper ... This represents the American Dream," Alvarez said. It honors his family's sacrifice, he added, and "solidifies that the journey was worth all the time and struggle."

Six nations will face off in baseball in the Tokyo Games. The U.S. team will play its first game next Friday, against Israel.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.