|Leaving Cuba to Pursue a Dream in United States|
|Escrito por Jessica Weiss|
|Martes 05 de Junio de 2012 23:02|
Manuel Huerta was 6 and living in Havana when he first dreamed of being an Olympian, after practicing alongside the Cuban national swim team six blocks from his home.
Huerta, who defected in 1997 at age 13, says his Olympic journey serves as a "message to the Castro government."
"I’m one of the Cubans that Fidel calls the Miami Mafia," he said, in reference to the Miami exile community that the Cuban state-run news media often portray as malicious and anti-Cuban.
"But I am not a bad person. I’m obviously not invading anyone in Cuba. Actually, I’m going to the Olympics."
Cuba has a strong Olympic tradition, and will send athletes to London in events including table tennis, boxing and track and field. But Huerta said he probably would have been unable to pursue his athletic ambitions in Cuba because of his family’s political history.
In 1980, his grandmother Consuelo left Cuba as part of the Mariel boatlift, when the Castro government allowed Cubans to board boats at the port of Mariel, west of Havana, to come to the United States.
The mass emigration occurred after five Cubans drove a bus through the gates of the Peruvian Embassy and were granted political asylum. When the Peruvian ambassador refused to return the citizens to the authorities, Castro removed the Cuban guards from the embassy, effectively releasing the thousands of asylum seekers who had gathered there. He called those who chose to leave "scum."
"Even if I became the same caliber of athlete in Cuba as I am now, Castro would never have let me leave the island to represent Cuba, " Huerta said. "Because of my family, we were marked."
Huerta, who is 5 feet 7 inches, was a small child, but he loved athletics. He woke before 5 a.m. to swim at Havana’s Marcelo Salado pool, named after an early revolutionary martyr. When he was 8, Huerta watched Cuban athletes compete in 16 sports in the 1992 Barcelona Games, broadcast on Cuba’s state-run television. (Cuba boycotted the 1984 and 1988 Games.) At 13, he placed first at the Cuban IronKids national championship, his first triathlon.
In November 1997, after months of paperwork, Huerta left Havana by plane with his mother and sister, to join his grandmother in Miami. He grew up "living and training on the streets of Little Havana," a Miami neighborhood.
"The language was the same, the food, the culture," he said. "What was different was the freedom to talk about anything we wanted without being afraid of getting in trouble."
He loved the Yankees, and would often call his father, who lived in Colombia, to talk baseball. Huerta fell in love with triathlon at 15 and joined a local triathlon club, where he flourished.
"He was always determined to be the fastest," said Frank Sanchez, 39, who met Huerta around that time. "But he didn’t have the money, so we all took him under our wing and helped him — donating bike parts, and sponsor deals, and all that stuff. We saw he was good."
Huerta ran cross-country in high school and landed a scholarship to Florida Atlantic. In 2003 he was invited to train for the triathlon at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. When he was 20, he became an American citizen. In 2011, he was a Pan American Games silver medalist.
"Manny has so much drive, incredible body awareness, and is an amazing competitor," said Roberto Solano, his coach, who is training Huerta in Costa Rica, on the side of an active volcano, until London. "But this has not been an easy journey for him."
In recent years, Huerta was slowed by injuries and had trouble finding money to support his race calendar. In 2009, his father died of colon cancer. His mother has skin cancer. Solano said Huerta was close to giving up several times.
"But he really wanted it," Solano said. "In San Diego, Manny executed perfectly and truly had the race of his life."
After coming from the fourth pack in the swim (1,500 meters), Huerta made up time in the bike portion (40 kilometers), then recorded a split of 30 minutes 44 seconds in the 10-kilometer run.
When Huerta arrived at the Miami airport from San Diego, his mother and a small group of friends were there to greet him and his girlfriend, Pierina, who is from Argentina and also a triathlete, holding up signs that read, "U.S.A." They were the same people who supported Huerta since the beginning, when he was just a child in Little Havana with a big dream.
"I came to the U.S., and it opened its door and gave me all the support I needed," Huerta said. "Now I’m going to go to London and represent it."
[ From http://www.nytimes.com ]