The rhythms — quick, darting and syncopated — caromed around the inside of the bus. The sounds — horns, shakers and claves together — were infectious, beckoning her to dance.
Thousands of miles away from her home in West Palm Beach, Melissa Ortiz, 18, felt at ease traveling with her teammates on the Colombian national soccer team. The salsa and merengue music entertaining the players were no different than what her parents played as she grew up in the United States, the lively dance steps already a part of her repertoire.
Four years later, Ortiz, who played at Cardinal Newman High School and Lynn University, continues to embrace her heritage as she competes for Colombia in the London Olympics, courtesy of her dual citizenship. She is one of more than three dozen athletes with ties to South Florida participating in the 2012 Games. Half of those athletes are representing countries other than the United States.
The region's presence in London spans all four hemispheres and illustrates its vast diversity.
"I've grown up around Colombian culture," Ortiz said. "It's really connected me to my roots."
For some athletes, it offers the once-in-a-lifetime chance to compete on the highest international stage — an opportunity perhaps more highly contested on the U.S. Olympic team. For others, South Florida was merely home to the best available training, and uprooting one's life was necessary.
Ortiz was unaware Colombia even had a national team until she was in high school, when she decided to attend tryouts. With a smaller competition pool than that of the United States, the team is still in its fledgling stages. Colombia participated in theWomen's World Cupfor the first time just last year, though Ortiz did not make the squad.
So on Saturday, when Ortiz and Colombia take on the United States, a proving ground is in place. It's a game four years in the making and one to show that she belongs.
"I'm pumped," she said. "I can't wait to play against them."
Pride in one's homeland is undoubtedly a theme of every Olympic Games, and that is especially true of the South Floridians competing for other countries. Swimmers Esau Simpson and Branden Whitehurst, along with British volleyball player Ciara Michel, feel a similar passion that drives them through their rigorous training.
'This will motivate them'
Esau Simpson's Facebook page floods with messages from back home. Family, friends and perhaps even future Olympic hopefuls who train in the same four-lane, 25-yard pool that he outgrew all support the 21-year old from Grenada.
Simpson, who was raised in Grenada and recently completed his sophomore season at Nova Southeastern, will swim the 100-meter freestyle in London.
He is one of 10 Grenadians competing in the London Olympics. Eight are track and field athletes. One competes in taekwondo. And Simpson swims — alone.
"In Grenada we have a slight habit of kids just falling behind on the urge to swim," Simpson said. "This will motivate them to see that if I can do it, they can probably do it."
And like last year when he swam at the FINA World Championships in Shanghai, Simpson said he feels pressure once again.
"I'm representing my country," Simpson said. "I'm representing all the swimmers past in Grenada. Past, present and future.
"But I've worked hard to swim at this level, so I'm pretty confident in that."
The goal for London is to simply exceed his personal best in the 100-meter freestyle. But his objectives in swimming are much larger. Simpson has two more years of college, then two more years until the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. He calls that "another goal to strive for."
In the meantime, he hopes to be a lodestar for young Grenadian swimmers by generating a lasting interest in the sport.