LONDON — There are a thousand reasons Manny Huerta shouldn’t be here.
He spent the early part of his life in Cuba, where his family was not in the favor of Fidel Castro’s government, which scarcely put them in exclusive company. He fell into the sport of triathlon almost by accident, a swimmer who joined his high school’s cross-country team only because the coach needed one more boy. He trained for a decade, but leveled off on the international stage, competitive but not consistent. Four years ago, he wasn’t a threat to make the American Olympic team. Four months ago, the odds were against him, too.
Yet in little more than a week, Huerta will swim through a lake in Hyde Park. He’ll bike past Buckingham Palace. And he’ll run to the finish line, with the letters USA clearly stitched onto his back. The United States has just two men competing in triathlon at the London Olympics. Hunter Kemper, in his fourth Olympics, is one. Huerta, in his first, is the other.
“I can only surmise that somebody that comes from an environment that maybe they had things a little bit easier, they may have other opportunities, they may not make it,” said Andy Schmitz, USA Triathlon’s high performance general manager. “This is a dream. This is a dream for him. I think he saw his parents and grandparents who came before him that kept fighting through challenge. It has to make a difference.”
The challenges for Huerta were both long ago and recently. He was born in Havana in 1984, four years after his grandmother fled the Cuban capital for Miami as part of the legendary Mariel boat lift. But his mother, Martha Cardenas, remained behind. Manny grew up as a swimmer, training in the same Havana pool that served as home to Rodolfo Falcon, a three-time Olympian. The young Huerta saw Falcon in person training, and then on television in 1992, from Barcelona. Four years later, in Atlanta, Falcon won Cuba’s first swimming medal, a silver in the 100-meter backstroke. Huerta, all of 12, was hooked.
“I wanted to be one of those guys on TV one day,” Huerta said Friday.
A year later, Huerta’s mother made the bold decision to join her mother in Miami. In Havana, she had been a physics professor. In the United States, she would become a driving instructor. But for her family, the move seemed right.
Huerta, though, felt lonely at first. Sports helped change that. He had continued swimming in the United States when he filled that final spot on the cross-country team. That eventually led to a collegiate cross-country career at Florida Atlantic. He took up triathlon in the summers. He never escaped.
“It’s been nonstop,” Huerta said.
Yet others might have stopped. After college, Huerta moved to Colorado Springs and maintained a residence in USA Triathlon’s development program. Yet at some point, his development stopped.
“You’d see flashes of brilliance,” Schmitz said, “but not the consistency.”
So after failing to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Games, Huerta underwent a slew of radical changes. He was demoralized enough that he tried the Ironman distance and ended up crashing on his bike, injuring his knee and messing up his 2009 season. His father, who long before had moved to Colombia, died of cancer. His grandmother did as well. His mother then had the disease diagnosed.
“There was so much going on,” he said. What did he have left to pursue?
“You can have a 12-year career if you’re a Hunter Kemper and you have that level of success and consistency,” Schmitz said. “But somebody to fight tooth and nail just to get by? That can be a challenge. So to have that kind of confidence in himself is amazing.”
Huerta’s mother beat cancer. Free of that worry and spurred by her fight, he fought on himself. He hooked up with a coach, Roberto Solano, who encouraged him to train in Costa Rica. On the side of a volcano. Workouts would happen at 5,000 feet above sea level. Sleeping occurred 2,000 feet above that.
And yet, earlier this year, there was still no way to know whether the journey would be worth it. In May, at an international event in San Diego, Huerta knew only the top American finisher was guaranteed a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Until the last mile of the run, that’s exactly what Huerta was. And then Kemper passed him.
“He’s been to four Olympic Games,” Huerta said. “So if there’s someone out there that knows how to get here, it’s him.”
Huerta’s only other chance: Finish in the top nine overall. Huerta, running behind, lost track of where he stood. When he crossed the finish line, he clasped his head. He bent at the waist. And when he looked up, he started counting the athletes around him. One, two, three — wait, there were only eight. He was ninth. He was an Olympian.
“That moment,” Schmitz said. “Just raw emotion.”
Huerta grabbed an American flag and began racing up and down along the crowd, which gleefully chanted, “U-S-A! U-S-A!”
Havana, Miami, family. Colorado, Costa Rica, cancer. They’re all part of his story, one that makes him one of the most fascinating American athletes at these Games.
“I am 100 percent American,” Huerta said Friday. “I just, I remember where I came from, and I think I’m very lucky to be able to [be] born over there but then to come over here and succeed, I think it can open the doors to many kids that come to this country with a dream.”
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