London • When Manny Huerta was a little boy starting out as a competitive swimmer, he practiced in the same pool in Havana where Rodolfo Falcon trained to be an Olympian. On Thursday, Huerta introduced himself to Falcon in the Olympic Village.
Falcon won Cuba's first Olympic medal in swimming, a silver in the 100-meter backstroke at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Huerta, who left Cuba for Miami a year later when he was 13, will represent the U.S. here in the triathlon.
"I just came up to him and I told him that I used to swim where he swam," Huerta said of Falcon, a three-time Olympian who retired in 2002. "He obviously doesn't remember me."
But Huerta looked up to Falcon. And it was in that pool in Havana that Huerta's improbable Olympic journey began.
"Swimming in the same pool and watching him walk in every morning, then watching him on TV, I wanted to be one of those guys on TV one day," Huerta said. "If we stay in Cuba, maybe I wouldn't have made the team there."
Huerta's grandmother fled Cuba in the 1980 Mariel boatlift. Some 125,000 left the troubled island nation over a six-month period.
"She just said it was a very small boat, it was very crowded," said Huerta, 28. "She was just happy that she was able to make that trip. Thanks to her, we were able to move to the U.S."
She was granted U.S. citizenship and then helped Huerta, his mother and sister get visas to join her in the U.S.
In Cuba, Huerta's mother was a university physics professor. Now she's a driving instructor in Miami. She will be here to watch her son compete next week, accompanied by Huerta's sister and girlfriend.
"As an athlete, we make a lot of sacrifices, we work really hard, but we get a lot of support from the families," Huerta said. "They're with us regardless, in the ups and the downs. Having them watch me in my dream race is great."
In Miami, Huerta went out for his high school's swim team, then got recruited to the cross-country team because they were a man short of a full squad.
"They told me, 'Can you run a 5K?' " Huerta said. "I'm like, 'Yeah, I'm pretty sure I can make it.' My first race wasn't as good as I expected, but I started getting good at it. Since I already had the swimming and running base from high school, I started doing triathlons during the summers."
Later he ran cross-country at Florida Atlantic University. He became a U.S. citizen when he was 20. Last year, he won a silver medal at the Pan Am Games.
To make this Olympic team along with Hunter Kemper of Colorado Springs, Huerta had to finish in the top nine at an ITU World Triathlon Series event in San Diego in May. He finished ninth and was overcome with emotion at the finish, an American flag draped around his shoulders.
"The race of my life," Huerta said.
He was born in Havana and speaks with a Cuban accent, but he is an American at heart, and was proud to march with the U.S. team in Friday's Opening Ceremony.
"The U.S. has helped me and millions of immigrants who come with a dream," Huerta said. "I can't thank enough to America, and to my family to make that decision and that sacrifice to leave everything behind for a better life. In the U.S., you put your own goals. If you work hard, you're going to get there, and you don't have to depend on the government to put those goals for you."
Huerta is already an inspiration to his Olympic teammates.
"It's incredible to have Manny as a teammate, to have somebody with such American pride," said Gwen Jorgensen of Milwaukee, who will compete in the women's triathlon Aug. 4 along with Laura Bennett of Boulder, Colo., and Sarah Groff of Hanover, N.H. "It's what the Olympics are all about. It brings the world together; it brings the U.S. together. It's wonderful to have Manny representing us."