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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 competitions.

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 in 1928.

``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 Olympic contender.

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 dedicated.

``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 Haiti.

``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 kickboxing sisters.

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 champion.

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.''

Destiny has stepped in once for Berto. Everyone here is sure it will happen twice.

 

 

 

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