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Hernández: Xander Schauffele an example of how many Olympic athletes transcend nationalities

And here I was thinking I had a colorful background, with a father from El Salvador and mother from Japan.

Turns out the story I’ve told countless times here over the last couple of weeks about my parents meeting on a tour bus in Mexico isn’t nearly as crazy as I thought it was.

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My lineage is basic compared with that of U.S. golfer Xander Schauffele, a four-time winner on the PGA Tour who is a one-man United Nations.

He’s Japanese. He’s Taiwanese. He’s German. He’s French.

Now, after birdieing the 17 at the Kasumigaseki Country Club on Sunday to regain a lead over Rory Sabbatini that was lost three holes earlier, the 27-year-old from San Diego has a title that transcends any man-made boundary.

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Schauffele is an Olympic gold medalist.

The Japanese people with whom I’ve spoken don’t consider Naomi Osaka to be one of them, and the guess here is the same people would have similar, if not even stronger, feelings like that toward Schauffele. But listen to Schauffele talk about his maternal grandparents, who live in the fashionable Tokyo ward of Shibuya.

“When you open a suitcase, you can always kind of smell, sort of, where you come from,” he said. “Whenever my grandparents, a long time ago, used to travel to San Diego when I was living with my parents as a kid, it always smelled like Japan. I don’t know how to describe it.”

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He doesn’t know how to describe it because it’s as much a feeling as it is a smell. How can a border be placed around something like that?

Schauffele has said he and his brother were raised in a household that was culturally Japanese, the influence of his mother, who spent nearly her entire youth in Tokyo. But here’s the interesting part: His mother, Ping-Yi Chen, was born in Taiwan. Both of her parents are Taiwanese.

Xander Schauffele holds up his gold medal after winning the men's golf tournament.

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Xander Schauffele holds his gold medal after winning the men’s golf tournament at the Tokyo Olympics on Sunday.

(Andy Wong / Associated Press)

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Schauffele’s half-French father, Stefan, was an Olympic hopeful in Germany in the decathlon. Two of Stefan’s grandparents were professional soccer players; one played for the Austrian national team, another later became an accomplished discus and javelin thrower. Stefan’s athletic dreams were crushed when he was struck by a drunk driver and a shard of glass was lodged in his eye. Multiple surgeries failed to restore vision in that eye.

Schauffele’s parents met at a San Diego area university in 1988. Three months later, they were married. The couple moved to Germany, where they had oldest son Nico, after which they lived in San Diego, Hawaii, then San Diego again.

At this point, Schauffele probably couldn’t say which of his traits descend from which culture or where the influence of one culture ends and another one starts.

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If these Olympics have demonstrated anything other than what a horrible idea it is to stage a major international event during a global pandemic, it’s that national identities have become increasingly fluid.

Take the example of the runner-up to Schauffele on Sunday, Sabbatini. He was born in South Africa, holds a United Kingdom passport and has U.S. citizenship. At these Games, he represented Slovakia, his wife’s native country.

Or take the passports out of the equation and look at the case of Takefusa Kubo, the 20-year-old star of the soccer competition. He is Japanese by birth. He is ethnically Japanese. But he also spent several of his formative years in Barcelona’s youth academy and now speaks perfect Spanish with a Spanish accent. He still plays club soccer in Spain. If he isn’t at least part Spanish by now, won’t he be soon?

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Schauffele has a hopeful view of this cross-pollination.

“I think that me being very international, it’s taught me a lot about different cultures, and it’s made me very understanding of different cultures,” he said. “I think that if everyone sort of had the ability to travel more and experience other cultures, they would be more willing to get along, potentially.”

Hours after Schauffele’s triumph, with Kasumigaseki blanketed in the kind of darkness found only in rural areas, a couple of Taiwanese reporters were in the parking lot getting into a taxi. The volunteers who were there congratulated them, not only for the bronze medal won by their countryman C.T. Pang, but also Schauffele’s gold.

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Schauffele’s medal is officially credited to the U.S.’s count, but several other countries could also make reasonable claims the hardware was part theirs, if not legally, in feeling.

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