Roberto was just 13 when his father was murdered.
He had never imagined such a thing would happen to the man he loved so much. And amid thoughts of revenge, anger and hopelessness, he faced not only the end of his father’s life, but the possibility of throwing his own away as well.
“It was pretty much at the time my father was killed that I joined Fight for Peace. It was crucial in changing my way of thinking.”
This devastating event was 12 years ago now. But since that dark time, Roberto Custodio, a native of the Maré favelas in Rio de Janeiro, has emerged as one of his country’s most promising boxers, only missing out on a place at this year’s London Games by the slightest of margins.
One of the younger members of the Brazilian national boxing team, the fighter from Rio was overlooked in place of a more experienced pair of hands. “It was tricky and it would have been great,” he says, “but I look forward to doing a good job and fighting for a place in Rio 2016.”
It’s the kind of modest strength and ambition that has seen him triumph over far greater adversity to become the admired figure he is in his community today.
Roberto’s childhood home was the Maré favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Here, faced with growing up without his father, he battled with thoughts of seeking revenge against those who had murdered him.
However, it turned out to be a boxing project, recently set up in Maré, which helped convince him otherwise.
Speaking to Laureus from the Rio base of the Fight for Peace project, Roberto says: “I was only thinking about vengeance, but the project was there to stop me. I came to realise that by taking revenge it would make it even worse. I would have had revenge, but life for my family, and any family I might have in the future, would be even worse. That’s why I threw myself into sport.”
Laureus has supported the Fight for Peace project in Rio since its inception and uses boxing & martial arts training to help vulnerable young people, as Roberto once was, to find new direction and purpose in life. The project has a sister initiative in east London with the same goals.
Now aged 25, Roberto has traveled from country to country with the Brazilian national team. And, though based with them in Sao Paulo, it is of testament to his character and love for his community that he remains a coach to those in Maré looking for someone to rely on, as he once needed himself.
He says: “I love coaching. For me, it is passing on what you have learnt and that is a great joy, especially passing on to the young people in the Maré community here.”
And he sees first-hand that despite the problems Rio still faces, the work of Fight for Peace (FFP) is making a remarkable difference to lives here in Maré.
“I have seen so many young people in this community totally lost, without any idea of what to do. Now FFP is an option for them, people are getting better access to jobs where once only trafficking was an option for them. In Maré now, I see a big difference since FFP arrived, young peoples’ perspectives are being changed through sport.”
As Roberto says these words, a young voice interrupts him and another reason as to why he feels so passionately about the young people of his community becomes clear.
It is his daughter. She is named Rillary (pronounced Hillary) and he reveals she will be celebrating her fourth birthday in just a few days.
“She is like me when I was a kid, always running around. I see myself in her and that’s cool.”
With a little girl of his own, the product of a marriage that is now in its eighth year, it is hard not to reflect back to the decision Roberto made 12 years ago. The decision to fight for peace, not revenge.
“I’m so glad I took that decision …
“Now I can say ‘I won’. I can say ‘I’m the winner’.”