When Manuel Huerta was growing up in Cuba, the spear fishermen along Miramar Beach chose him, a stem of a boy with aquamarine eyes, to be their helper. He was stronger than he looked.
They swam a half-mile out, and while Manolo Portales and a crusty-skinned guy called El Rubio held their breath and dove 30 to 50 feet in search of snapper or grouper, Huerta waited at the surface, treading water and holding the buoy line that grew heavy with dead fish. When they returned to shore, he was always rewarded with one fish, the smallest catch, which he took home to his mother and sister for dinner.
On those days in the ocean, kicking his legs and whirling his arms for two hours, Huertas imagination was prodded by the current. He wanted to be an athlete. Nobody could call him a weakling if he was in the Olympics.
As he rode his clunky Chinese Flying Sparrow bike around Havana and hauled it up two flights of stairs, he began to think of cycling less as a hardship and more as a training regimen.
Later, as a poor kid in Miami, he began to run. His vision was coming into focus. Nobody could tell him inner city immigrants didnt do triathlons. And they certainly shouldnt aspire to something as impractical and unrealistic as wearing a USA uniform in the Olympics.
But when the London Games commence July 27, Manny Huerta will be marching in opening ceremonies, and when the mens triathlon is contested Aug. 7, Huerta will be swimming in the Serpentine, cycling around Hyde Park and running past Buckingham Palace.
Hardly anyone expected Huertas crazy American dream to come true. Now that it has, hardly anyone would be shocked if he won a medal.
Its been a long road, said Huerta, 28. Its been my lifes work, and I feel like it is paying off thanks to the people who stood by me during the hard moments.
If you live in South Florida, youve probably seen Huerta running along Old Cutler Road, pedaling up the Rickenbacker Causeway bridge, swimming laps at Jose Marti pool. To Miamis booming triathlon community, he is a local hero.
He lives near Miami International Airport with his mother but has spent the past month at his altitude training site the 12,000-foot Irazu volcano in Costa Rica. He stays in a farmhouse halfway up the peak with his training partner, coach and girlfriend.
We get a lot of brief earthquakes, Huerta said. The week before Olympic trials I was playing video games when the whole house started shaking. I shouted, Run outside! but it was only a temblor. Our standard joke is: If this thing erupts, Ill race you downhill.
Huerta boosts his red blood cell count in the thin air. The house sits above the clouds on a strawberry farm and adjacent to a flower farm. During cool nights, fruity scents and coyotes howls fill the air. In the morning, Huerta is awakened by roosters and cows.
Its a monastic spot. No Internet or cellphones.
Very peaceful, Huerta said. A simple existence with no distractions. In the evenings, we play UNO, make dinner, go to sleep early.
He was invited to train there by Costa Rican triathlete Leo Chacon and coach Roberto Solano, an exercise physiologist. They run and bike in the Orosi Valley and theres a pool and track in the town of Cartago. Occasionally, they run on the high, steep, muddy paths that make Huertas Garmin profile resemble a trek through the Himalayas. Theyre always accompanied by their guide, a dog named Matiz.