Luis Orta was minding his business — running for the University of Kentucky — when his eyes were opened.
As teammate Josh Nadzam calls it, Orta had "almost like an epiphany."
What ensued was a wave of good works that spread across the UK campus last year, and across the Southeastern Conference this year. The ripples spread across the globe.
Orta, a senior from Caracas, Venezuela, has a long list of accomplishments as a runner. Last month, he swept the 3,000- and 5,000-meter titles at the SEC Indoor Track and Field Championships. Thursday, he won the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the Texas Relays in his first outdoor race of the spring. He also has competed internationally for Venezuela.
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His "epiphany" occurred after a solo training run during the summer of 2010. In the locker room, he surmised that his training shoes "were done."
"So I put them in the trash," he said. "Then I went home and started thinking what I did. And I'm like, 'Whoa, that's not right what I just did because I threw a pair of shoes out that are still fine; they're good. They're not good for us — we're athletes and we have to run in them — but for other people, they're perfectly fine.'"
Orta told Nadzam what he was thinking and suggested they collect shoes that could be recycled.
"He loved the idea, so we put all the ideas together, talked about it and decided to do a shoe drive," Orta said. "It was super good. Last year, we collected over 2,000 pairs of shoes."
The shoes went to Soles4Souls, a charity based in suburban Nashville that has distributed more than 17 million pairs of shoes to people in more than 125 countries since 2005.
Orta said that he was told some of the shoes collected at UK last year went to Haiti. He said Soles4Souls also has provided shoes to Americans who have been hit by disasters including hurricanes and tornadoes.
Nadzam, a senior middle distance runner who has received national recognition for many community service works, said that shoes for his competitive purposes are past being useful after about two months.
By then, he has put 400-500 miles on. There's still plenty of wear left in the shoes for daily knock-around purposes, though.
"They'll look perfect," Orta said. "If you wash them, they look like nothing ever happened to them."
All types of shoes are wanted — everything from sandals and soccer cleats to boots and high heels.
Last year's spur-of-the-moment shoe drive at UK went so well that a Soles4Souls representative asked if the campus organizers would endorse an SEC-wide competition.
"We loved that idea," Nadzam said. "So we all worked together to get all the other schools on board. Then, Feb. 1 this year, it was unleashed."
The competition will last through April 27.
Kevin Carney, a transfer from UK, is leading the shoe drive at Tennessee.
"Josh and Luis, they deserve all the recognition in the world for it," Carney said. "... Those two, bringing that to the SEC, I think that's a tremendous thing. I think it's going to be one of those programs that sticks around for a long time and is going to help a lot of people."
A decathlete who is out for the season because of injury, Carney said the idea has been well received at Tennessee "and I think next year we're going to be able to do a lot better because this is kind of something new and different to all of us."
Nadzam thinks UK will far surpass its total of a year ago, when "we just kind of winged it; we started texting people, calling people, email, Facebooked everybody we knew. ... This year, we're networking a lot more. There's a lot of organizations who have stepped up."
Churches, high schools, middle schools, the YMCA and even some apartment complexes are on board, according to Nadzam.
Anyone who wants to donate to the Big Blue collection can drop off shoes at CATS (Center for Academic & Tutorial Services) in Memorial Coliseum, at the Shively Training Facility or the Johnson Center; or email Nadzam at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Orta at email@example.com.
"I think we're doing good," Nadzam said of the SEC competition. "We definitely don't want to lose our own shoe drive."