SANTA MARIA, Calif. - With dozens of family members, friends and fans cheering him on at the Santa Maria Public Airport, Karlos Balderas made a triumphant return to his hometown on Tuesday afternoon.
"I was told people were going to come, but I didn't expect it to be this much," said Balderas. "I have my aunt from Texas, my cousin from Oklahoma, so it's crazy knowing the type of things my family and friends will do for me and I'm very appreciative."
The 19-year-old member of the U.S. Olympic boxing team was returning home after competing recently in Rio de Janeiro.
"Rio was a life changing experience for me, due to the fact that I'm very young," said Balderas. "It was a great experience and I'm happy I was able to experience it with my family who went down, my aunt, my uncle, my cousin, my brother and my grandpa."
While Balderas' flight from San Francisco was delayed on its arrival by nearly 40 minutes, it did little to dampen the enthusiasm for his supporters who showed up the airport in huge numbers to welcome him home. Supporters arrived with signs, balloons, flowers, flags and there was even a mariachi band, which played for more than an hour and half.
"It's amazing, people are so kind," said Karlos' father Zenon Balderas. "People love Karlos, he's a very good kid, he's very humble and they love Karlos. They're proud of him and he's a role model for kids. A lot of kids are dreaming about the Olympics because of him. He's an inspiration to a lot of kids."
The return caps a long three-months for Balderas, which included a strenuous training camp with the team, plus the travel and competition in Rio de Janeiro. Now home, Balderas is looking forward to taking some much needed and well deserved time off.
"Right now I am looking forward to spending some time with my family," said Balderas. "It's my birthday tomorrow. It's my first birthday in a long time that I'll be able enjoy because I've always been out of town or out of the country or training."
The Santa Maria native arrived home after a very successful run in Rio de Janeiro. While he did not win a medal competing in the men's lightweight (132 pounds) division, he thrilled his many fans on the Central Coast and across the country with a pair of victories before losing to top-seeded Lazaro Alvarez of Cuba in a quarterfinal match.
Earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic team fulfilled a lifelong dream for not only Balderas, but also his entire family, which immigrated from Mexico. Balderas took up the sport at a young age, showing promise soon after lacing up his first boxing gloves at the age of seven.
Displaying the same strong work ethic that is a common trait with the rest of his family, Balderas quickly established himself as an up-and-coming boxing star, earning numerous titles, such as the Junior and Youth Open championships. He later competed in the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto and was the first American boxer to qualify for the 2016 Olympics during the World Series of Boxing qualification series.
Zenon Balderas says he son may take the next three or four months off to decide his future plans, which may include entering the professional ranks or setting his sights on the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
In the immediate future, Karlos will celebrate his 20th birthday on Wednesday. To celebrate, the family is throwing a celebration at the Balderas gym, which is located at 2330 Westgate Rd. in Santa Maria starting at 3:00 p.m. The community is invited to attend the event. In addition, Balderas will be honored publicly by the City of Santa Maria during the Downtown Fridays farmer's market event this Friday night.