He escaped a communist regime, became a four-time NCAA individual diving champion, performed in Cirque du Soleil shows in Las Vegas and studied the Kabbalah.
Rio Ramirez, hired in August to serve as FIU’s first full-time diving coach, has a diverse background.
The one major goal that managed to elude him was a berth in the Olympics, but FIU swim coach Randy Horner has given him a start toward a new career.
“I liked his philosophy,” Horner said when asked why he hired Ramirez, 38. “Even though this is his first year as a college coach, his experience as a diver is amazing, his story is unique, and he is very good at helping kids become better people.”
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Ramirez said it will take some time to build up the program at FIU, which currently has just one diver on its roster. In contrast, Southern California, the top-ranked swim program in the nation, lists seven divers on its talent-packed team.
When freshman Madalyn Golightly decided to leave FIU’s program this fall, it left junior Sabrina Beaupre as the only diver for Ramirez to mentor.
Ramirez hopes to bring in three diving recruits next fall and envisions a day when he will have six divers on his roster.
In the meantime, Beaupre, 20, has impressive credentials. The Quebec native has already won the Sun Belt Conference Diver of the Year award twice. She has also competed for Canada in the Pan American Games and is gearing up for the Sun Belt finals Feb.27-March 2 in Rockwall, Texas.
A tall diver at 5-11, Beaupre said Ramirez has worked with her on technique, maintaining power while keeping her legs straight as she completes dives cleanly.
But she and Ramirez have worked just as hard on mental techniques.
“I have the word ‘believe’ tattooed on my right foot,” Beaupre said. “In diving, you go through ups and downs. [Ramirez] likes to point at my foot and remind me to believe in myself.”
Ramirez knows all about ups and downs.
He seems to have been destined since birth for a career in the water — his first name, after all, means river in Spanish.
Yet Ramirez was once afraid of the ocean.
“When I was about 5, seeing that body of water intimidated me,” said Ramirez, who is from Camaguey, Cuba. “My father had to carry me into the water to try to break me of that fear.”
Ramirez was a hyper child who hung from every door frame and tested through the roof as a tumbler.
Cuban sports officials suggested that he try diving, and Ramirez’s parents took him to a pool at age 6, where he quickly flourished.
By 1992, Ramirez, then 18, became the first Cuban diver to win a gold medal at the Pan American Games, and he was confident he could succeed in the Olympics.
But Cuban officials, opting only to take athletes they felt would win an Olympic medal, passed on Ramirez.
“That was an eye-opener,” Ramirez said. “I did not have a say in the decision. If I said something, I don’t feel it would have helped me. I saw my future being very unhappy and unable to make a change.”
Defecting to U.S.
The following year, Ramirez, who was in Puerto Rico to compete in a Central American competition, defected, finding a Cuban-American family willing to house him for a week and help him get to Miami, where he had relatives.
Ramirez didn’t speak English and had no idea where to go to continue his diving career. So he got a job at a clothing store and was content to live his life, having traded diving for liberty.
Fortunately for Ramirez, the owner of the clothing store was a former University of Miami diver.
When he found out about Ramirez’s credentials, he pointed him toward the Hurricanes club program.
Ramirez enrolled in night school to learn English and accepted a scholarship to UM in 1997 at age 23. He became a three-time All-American for the Canes and finished third at the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2000.
Only the top two make the Games, however, and Ramirez’s life took another twist when a Cirque du Soleil scout watched him compete and convinced him to become a performer in the O show.
Ramirez was reluctant at first and even more so when he found out he would be diving from 60 feet — twice as high as his NCAA platform competitions.
“It was very scary at first,” Ramirez said.
Ramirez did the show for three years and still visits with the cast whenever he’s in Las Vegas.
But all those years of diving and performing left him feeling empty.
“I wanted more lasting fulfillment and more meaningful answers,” Ramirez said. “I started studying the wisdom of the Kabbalah, spiritual laws that help you live a chaotic-free life.”
Ramirez, who left Cirque du Soleil in 2007, spent much of the past five years becoming a student and a teacher of the Kabbalah.
But he missed sports, and the opening at FIU was the perfect opportunity for Ramirez to combine his knowledge of diving with his new-found serenity.
Beaupre, FIU’s lone diver, is the beneficiary of Ramirez’s undivided attention. They talk extensively during their car rides to and from practice.
“Sabrina is a great athlete, and her diving skills are strong,” Ramirez said. “I believe she can go far.”
His work with Beaupre is just the start of his second career, and — who knows? — maybe one day Ramirez will finally make the Olympics, as a coach.