LIMA (Reuters) - Maria Portilla was unable to take part in physical education classes at school because of a hernia operation and took up running only at the age of 25.
Despite all the setbacks, the 36-year-old from one of the poorest regions of the Peruvian Andes will be traveling to Beijing to run her second Olympic marathon with high hopes.
Portilla, born in the department of Apurimac, had to work as a child to help keep her family after her father fell seriously ill.
“My childhood was a bit tough,” she told Reuters in a telephone interview from the Andean city of Cusco where she was finishing her preparations.
“My father had a problem in his bones and it made me sad to see him in bed, not able to walk... But it transformed my personality.”
Portilla’s efforts left her with an injured back.
“I had a hernia and they operated on me but afterwards I went out to work again,” she said. “That was why I couldn’t do physical education, I was afraid.”
All that changed at the age of 25 when Portilla was training to be an infant school teacher.
Her tutor threatened to fail her if she did not undergo a physical education test.
Reluctantly, Portilla agreed to take part in a race and despite going barefoot, she surprised everyone by winning.
“When I won, I had no trainers,” she said. “After that, people bought them for me. It was the first time I had been given trainers.”
Her potential was spotted by the Peru Runners Club and with their support she qualified for the Sydney Olympics.
It was not a happy experience, however.
“The sun was burning terribly and my shoes started to burn. There was pain here and there, it kept popping up in different places. Suddenly, all the other girls started passing me.”
The following year, Portilla moved to the United States but then suffered a throat infection which was further complicated by a reaction to antibiotics.
Although she took part in various marathons, it was a struggle. She missed out on Athens and it was not until 2006 that she regained her best form.
Portilla said the high-altitude Andean region of Cusco, where messengers knows as chasquis once ran along the roads between the cities of the Inca empire, had potential for producing more long-distance runners.
“My hope is that Cusco or Apurimac can produce an athlete better than me,” she said.
Writing by Brian Homewood in Buenos Aires, editing by Dave Thompson