WINTER HAVEN - Hanging on the ``Andre Michael Berto
wall'' in the back of the Winter Haven jewelry store where he
works are years of newspaper clippings and photographs
documenting his rise as an amateur boxer.
One of his bosses, Tina Carpenter, collector of the clips,
proudly points to the headlines and boasts that she never
doubted for a minute ``Mike'' would make it to the Olympics,
``And he's going to get gold, too.''
Over at Maxine's Barber & Style Shop, two barbers have taped
Berto posters and headlines on the mirrors at their work stations.
``It's good that he got a second chance,'' says Ira Seright, who
cuts Berto's hair and is one of his biggest fans.
And at the Big M store, a Haitian grocery and gas station,
manager Serg Marcellus stands beneath a T-shirt with Berto's
picture, smiles and says, ``Everybody's happy that that young boy
made it to the Olympics. He's going to prove what he can do.
``It really doesn't matter if it's for the U.S. or Haiti. He's
really representing both countries.''
After a controversial disqualification at the U.S. Olympic
trials, Berto, 20, turned to his parents' native country. He has
never visited Haiti, but his father, Dieuseul Berto, obtained dual
citizenship for him years ago to make traveling there easier.
``Having it really turned out to be a blessing,'' says Tony
Morgan, Berto's coach for 10 years.
Dieuseul Berto contacted the Haitian boxing federation and
officials were very happy to welcome his son. USA Boxing also helped
clear the way, asking the U.S. Olympic Committee to sign a waiver
allowing Andre Berto to fight for Haiti even though he has
previously represented the United States in international
Now, Berto, known as Mike to his friends and Andre to the boxing
community, will head to Athens on Sunday as part of the 10-athlete
Haitian team. He's Haiti's only boxer, ranked third in the world as
a welterweight, and the best chance the country has for a medal.
A Hero To Haitians
This is making him extremely popular with Haitians worldwide since
Haiti's all-time medal count is two: a bronze in 1924 and a silver
``Especially now, since they're going through so much turmoil
over there, it's like a perfect opportunity to come in and hopefully
win a medal for them,'' Berto says.
His father and coach have been inundated with requests for
interviews, many from Haitian publications all over the world.
``They're all kind of pulling for him,'' says Dieuseul Berto. ``A
French reporter came here for almost a week.''
``You can punch in Andre's name online,'' says Morgan, ``and
honest to God, read until you're dead.''
Born in Miami in 1983, Berto grew up in Winter Haven where he
says he has always felt strong support from the entire community,
which includes thousands of Haitian immigrants.
``Everybody in this city, in this town, has watched me growing
up, and how hard I train,'' says Berto, who was picked as homecoming
and prom king at Winter Haven High School but didn't get to attend
the prom because he had a fight in Las Vegas that night.
Friends and neighbors, people at his Baptist church, would
encourage him as he ran every day and sympathize with the things he
had to give up, he says.
Introduced to boxing by his dad at 5, Berto started working out
at Winter Haven's Police Athletic League gym when he was about 12.
He was noticed and trained by legendary boxing great Jack Leonard,
who predicted in 1998 in The Tampa Tribune that Berto would be an
When Leonard retired, Morgan, 32, took over as Berto's trainer
and coach and says, ``He was naturally strong as a kid and he was
``When you can teach them to go to another level. That's when you
know you have a champion.''
Berto is Winter Haven's fourth Olympic athlete. He follows Kenny
Brokenburr (2000, relay team gold medal), Keith Brantly (1996
marathon) and Rowdy Gaines (1984, three gold medals, swimming).
Winter Haven Is Proud
City officials will plan some way to honor Berto when he returns
from Athens, says Deric Feacher, assistant to the city manager.
``Even though he won't be representing the United States of
America, he will be representing Winter Haven'' and the program he
came through sponsored by the police department and city, Feacher
says. ``We are extremely proud ... it's a joy. All of us will be
watching, believe me.''
At 14K Jewelry Outlet, where Berto started work at 13 and has
moved up to sales manager, Carpenter says, ``We're all really
excited. We've talked about this ever since he was a small child.''
Even with the flip-flopping decisions by officials at the U.S.
trials in February, his supporters didn't give up hope. For Berto,
there was a day or two of shock and disappointment, and then a
friend suggested checking with Haiti. Within two weeks, he says, he
was back in his intense training regimen preparing for the Pan
American pre-Olympic meet in Mexico, where he qualified to represent
``He doesn't give up on anything,'' Carpenter says. ``He just
does not fail.''
Athleticism runs in Berto's large family, headed by mother
Wilnise, 41, and Dieuseul, 45, a kickboxer who runs a martial arts
studio in Winter Haven. The siblings of four boys and three girls
range in age from 26 to 18 months and include a brother who is a
wrestling champion, another who is an Ultimate Fighter and two
Since he was about 8 years old, Berto says he's wanted to compete
in the Olympics and he vividly remembers watching Mexican-American
Oscar De La Hoya win the gold medal in 1992.
``To just be in the atmosphere'' of the games will be a reward
for all his hard work, Berto says. And he has dreams beyond winning
in Athens, those where he turns professional, becomes champion of
the world and is universally ``admired for what I do.''
Two of his biggest immediate challenges will be the boxers ranked
above him: Oleg Saitov, a Russian trying for his third gold medal as
a welterweight, and Lorenzo Aragon of Cuba, the defending world
Yet Berto, known for his power punches, has a feeling. He says,
``I believe this is my time.''
And the slogan his supporters have inscribed on the T-shirts
being sold around town seems to sum it up best: ``It's Just
Destiny has stepped in once for Berto. Everyone here is sure it
will happen twice.