Gladys Tejeda was a teenager on the starting line of a four-mile race through the chilly Peruvian highlands of her hometown, Junín.
She was certainly not thinking about Olympic glory. She didn't even know what the Olympics were. Her family didn't own a TV, and no one amid the mud-brick homes of her town ever talked about them. Besides, she was just concerned with finishing: She didn't own running shoes and only found a pair to borrow right before the race kicked off.
She ended up coming in second that day. But just over a decade later – and only four years after watching her first Olympic Games – Ms. Tejeda, age 26, will be representing Peru in the women's marathon during this summer's Olympics in London.
Hers is an improbable journey. She was the best runner in Junín as an adolescent, but her aspirations never expanded much beyond local races and the small-town recognition that came with it: a bit of cash, pencils or notebooks for school, some running paraphernalia.
Competing professionally was the last thing on her mind. She was the youngest of nine children (three of whom died at birth). Her parents were subsistence farmers who earned income by taking care of others' animals. The four boys and two girls each started working at age 8, selling fruit or helping in the fields. "We didn't have any money," Tejeda says. "We couldn't afford shoes, or plane tickets to compete abroad, or for me to do nothing but run."
Her parents and siblings knew she was fast. Each day the kids had to shepherd cows to grazing areas, an eight-mile round trip. Tejeda always got the job done the quickest. When her mother needed cooking oil or sugar from the store, she would dispatch her youngest "because she would just run, run, so fast," says her mother, Marcelina Pucuhuaranga.
The Tejeda family got its first TV in 2007, and it was the next year that Tejeda learned about the Olympics, watching the Beijing Games. Her older brother Jorge turned to her, as the family sat transfixed, and asked: "Why don't you run in the Olympics?"
It seemed like a preposterous idea. After all, Tejeda, who was 22 at the time, had never competed in a professional race. The longest she had ever run was 50 minutes. Her father had also died and she had quit running for a year. She only started again with the coaxing of co-workers at the flour factory where she worked.
The next year all the local races paid off. In 2009, the reputation of the "girl from Junín" spread, and a Peruvian trainer offered to teach her with a group of other budding marathoners in the state capital, Huancayo, 100 miles away. "I cried and cried," she recalls. "I had never been away from my mother."
Since then, her rise has been breathtaking. She qualified for the Olympics during her first marathon, in Seoul, South Korea, last year, and then captured the bronze medal in the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico. The London Games will be only her third marathon.
"She is an example for the rest of Peru," says Sebastián Marambio of the Olympian Athletic Association of Peru. "Through hard work and discipline, you can overcome any hardship."
Despite not having formal training until 2009, Tejeda believes her life in Junín prepared her well for elite running. Traversing 13,000-foot mountains, in cold air and on icy roads, gave her endurance. And her mother instilled in her an Olympian's discipline. "We always had to be punctual for everything," she says.
This summer, her family will once again be watching the Olympics on TV – this time a flat-screen that Tejeda recently bought – except for Jorge and her mother. They will be in London seeing her compete in person, on their first trip outside Peru, as a result of a program sponsored by Procter & Gamble that highlights the sacrifices mothers make raising Olympians.
"I'm a little nervous," says Tejeda. "But mostly just excited."
Gladys Tejeda: Getting to the Olympics on borrowed shoes