In the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, American John Smith was, in effect, the Stephen Curry of wrestling — an unstoppable force.
But as dominant as Smith was back then, he was beaten in Barcelona by the man who is now in his first season as an assistant coach at Monsignor Edward Pace High School in Miami Gardens.
Lazaro Reinoso, 46, who assists Frank Pelegri at Pace, earned a bronze medal for Cuba in Barcelona.
Smith, despite a 3-1 loss to Reinoso, earned the gold medal in 1992 just as he had in 1988.
Reinoso said he wasn’t nervous facing Smith, who had ruled the sport since 1987.
“I never thought somebody was better than me,” said Reinoso, who was just 22 when he won his medal. “To me, it was a normal match. (Smith) has two hands, and I have two hands. I didn’t think that because he had all those medals that he was better than me.
“My attitude was: ‘I’m good, too.’”
Pelegri, who led Pace to the Class 1A state title in 2000, is thrilled to have Reinoso and his no-fear attitude on his side.
“I’ve worked for 15 years trying to get him here as a coach,” Pelegri said. “It’s great to have a person with his credentials at Pace.”
Reinoso, who was born in Pinar del Rio, on the western end of Cuba, faced his teenage years as an orphan. He never knew his father, and his mother died of cancer when he was 13.
He tried baseball but, at 5-foot-4, he didn’t see a bright future in Cuba’s favorite sport.
So Reinoso started wrestling, competing in the 136-pound division.
“I chose wrestling because in my neighborhood you had to be tough or people would roll you over,” Reinoso said.
His mother, who cleaned a cafeteria for a living, was poor. But she would make ends meet by bringing food home from where she worked.
After she died, Reinoso was housed and fed by the Cuban government, which had recognized his wrestling talent. The year his mother died, Reinoso won a junior world championship.
Everything was going well for Reinoso until after he won his Olympic medal. By that time, he had noticed that once athletes were no longer winning, they were, in his view, abandoned.
“The Cuban government forgot those people,” Reinoso said. “I saw athletes when they finished their careers, they were not worth anything to the government. I saw a couple of my friends suffer, and I said: ‘That’s not going to happen to me.’”
Reinoso defected from Cuba in March 1993, making his escape at Miami International Airport while traveling with the national wrestling team.
He went to live in Hialeah, landing a job stocking groceries at a Winn-Dixie supermarket.
“Even making $5 an hour back then was great,” Reinoso said. “In Cuba, we made 75 cents a month.”
BACK TO WRESTLING
Reinoso lasted just two months at Winn-Dixie before he got a better offer. He had received a phone call from the University of Oklahoma wrestling club. They wanted him as an assistant coach.
The coach, Jack Spates, had purchased a plane ticket for Reinoso and said he could always go back to Miami if he didn’t like Oklahoma.
Reinoso didn’t speak English at the time, and he hated the frigid weather.
“I would look out the window, and all I saw was white,” Reinoso said. “It was cold!”
Reinoso wanted to leave immediately, but Spates’ daughter, who spoke Spanish, convinced him to stay.
Three years later, Reinoso’s life took a different turn – as a 26-year-old college wrestler. This was in Jefferson City, Tennessee, where he became an NCAA Division II champion for Carson-Newman University.
Reinoso finished in the top five in the country all four years, winning a national title as a sophomore. He was the runner-up in his 150-pound weight class in his final two years, and he earned a bachelor’s degree in education.
After college, Reinoso became a teacher and coach, making several stops from Atlanta to Miami.
Pelegri, a Cuban American who in 1992 had watched on TV as Reinoso won his Olympic medal, met Lazaro in Miami in 2000.
“Lazaro is a technical expert,” said Pelegri, 52. “He can walk around and see a kid and stop and take him aside and teach him. He’s extremely helpful in every aspect.”
Pace junior Vladimir Rochebrun said he and his teammates were “extremely excited” when they found out Reinoso would be coaching them this season, which culminates March 4-5 with the state wrestling tournament in Kissimmee.
“[Reinoso] is a pretty big name in wrestling,” Rochebrun said. “He’s helped me to think more about what moves to do and when to do them.
“Last year, I would do anything at any time and not give it much thought. I wouldn’t take into consideration what could happen if I did a certain move.
“This year, I’m patient. I think things through. I can use my opponents’ moves against them.”
Reinoso, who gets on the mat and wrestles with the Pace kids on a regular basis, considers the Miami wrestling community — including the coaches at Belen and Columbus where he previously worked — a big part of his family.
As for his biological family, he has a 7-year-old daughter who lives with her mother in Atlanta, as well as brothers, sisters and other loved ones back in Cuba.
“I know my nephews and nieces only by pictures,” said Reinoso, adding that his family members can’t afford to pay for phone service in Cuba.
At 46, Reinoso has lived exactly half his life in Cuba and half in the U.S.
Pelegri, who lost his father to lung cancer on Sept. 11, said Reinoso has helped him through his grieving process.
“He has been a very good friend,” Pelegri said. “I don’t call him my assistant. We are dual coaches here.”