Walter Reed Bethesda’s Ruperta Charles is proud to see her daughter following in her footsteps quite literally. The former Olympic track and field competitor’s 20-year-old daughter, Afia Charles’ goal is to sprint to the finish line in this year’s London Games.
“It’s surreal to see that she is doing the same thing I did,” said Ruperta.
The Pathology Lab medical technologist, born and raised in Antigua, began running in regional competitions around age 13. By about age 17, several US colleges began recruiting her and offering her track scholarships. In 1980, she moved to the states to attend Howard University. Of all schools vying for her, DC was closest to home, she said. Four years later, she ran in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, competing in the 100 and 200 meters and the 4x400 relay. She made it through to the semi-finals, just missing the finals by one event, the 4x400. In the 100 meter dash, her personal best was 11.69 seconds, and in the 400, one lap around the track, her personal best was 55 seconds.
That was the culmination of her track career, she said, and every minute of hard work was worthwhile. Competing against the world’s greatest athletes was an overwhelming and unforgettable experience, she explained.
“[There were] people from all walks of life,” she said, and, “[All the] great names you read about, you’re lining up with them. Being in the stadium, it was just unbelievable.”
After so many years of practically living in her running shoes, without many free weekends or summer vacations, and then competing in the Olympics, Ruperta decided to focus on her career, earning her degree in clinical lab science. She later married and had four kids all of whom she described as “sports-driven.” Her two sons and two daughters have always been athletic and goal-oriented, she said, noting how they display their goals on their bedroom walls so they can remain in sight.
“They’re very driven,” she said. “They get so immersed in whatever they do.”
It’s important to have that mindset, dedication and discipline, she said, because it transcends into work ethic, allowing individuals to do the best at whatever it is they seek to accomplish. Afia demonstrated just that in track and field, when she first tried the sport five years ago, Ruperta continued. She suggested her daughter give the sport a try when she started high school, at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, Md. She didn’t expect Afia would take her seriously, “because [teenagers] don’t want to do the things Mom did.”
Having only run on the courts, Ruperta said her daughter tried out for track in basketball shoes. “[The coach] looked at the watch, looked at her feet, and said, ‘how could she run this time with basketball shoes?’ He realized she had talent.”
Afia worked hard, dominating the sport, and later accepted a track scholarship to the University of Central Florida (UCF). There, she has become the school’s first Olympic athlete, Ruperta said. Having spent summers working out in Antigua with Ruperta’s former coach, Afia was offered a spot on the Caribbean country’s team to compete in the 400 meter dash. Semi-finals for this event will air at noon on Friday, Aug. 3.
Still running to stay in shape, Ruperta has worked with her daughter over the last few years during the summer time, the “off season” for track and field. Afia has also prepared with the help of her UCF coach, as well as Dee Dee Trotter, a 2008 gold and bronze medalist and current Olympian who regularly trains at UCF.
Ruperta anticipates her daughter will continue to grow stronger in the sport, as she gains confidence, and will become a medal contender in the next summer Olympics, in Brazil.
“I’m really proud of her to see what she has accomplished in such a short time,” she said.
Having worked at the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) since 2006, prior to integration to form Walter Reed Bethesda, Ruperta said she has learned many core values from running that she still applies today. The sport taught her commitment and time management.
“That transcends into everything you do,” she said. “Of course there are always people who think they can’t do it, but you always have to believe in yourself.”
Ruperta, who teaches her colleagues how to run Hematology tests and interpret data, was described as an “outstanding teacher and mentor” by Pathology Laboratory Manager Navy Capt. Larry Ciolorito.
“Her success here reflects the same drive and dedication she demonstrated as an elite athlete,” he said. “It’s not surprising when someone of her caliber demonstrates excellence in more than one field, nor is it a surprise when such an outstanding teacher and role model sees one of her children achieve success.”