He’s not been in the United States for even a year and he’s already a smash hit. It seems that gold follows Anthony Luis Echemendía Orduña wherever he goes.
The 19-year-old, who has a long history of gold medals in his native Cuba, is now champion of both greco and freestyle wrestling in Arizona, where he lives.
His goal is to represent the United States in the Olympics, for which he’s been strenuously training. Echemendía was a champion in Cuba six times in a row and lost only one match in seven years —a record.
“I won 6 nationals gold medals in Cuba. Now I’m a double UAS national champ. I wanted to get a Olympic gold medal for Cuba. Now my greatest dream is to get a gold medal for USA” he said.
He will soon submit his application for permanent residence in the U.S. under the Cuban Adjustment Act. But getting to the United States was not easy for Echemendía, who defected at the age of 18 during his first trip outside Cuba.
He went with the Cuban national team on a training visit to Guatemala, but concluded that life in the Central American country was better for him than on the island. So he decided not to return home.
“It was very difficult. I did not say anything to my parents, to avoid worrying them, but I decided to continue on my way to the United States and I started to look for help from my relatives, he said.
He lived in Petén, a largely rural province in northern Guatemala. From there he crossed into neighboring Belize and later crossed all of Mexico until he reached El Paso, Texas, where he asked for political asylum.
Echemendía left Cuba on an official Cuban passport, which is red rather than blue, and under Cuban law he is now considered a defector who cannot return to the island for eight years. He spent two months and 20 days in a U.S. immigration detention center, was released on parole and went to live with relatives in New Mexico.
“That’s where I was contacted by my current trainer, Fernando Villaescusa, someone who has become part of my family and supports me all the time,” he said. “I started to study in Sunnyside High School.
Villaescusa, his coach, said that the arrival of Echemendía improved the school team: “He makes all the wrestlers around him better. Sunnyside has a famous wrestling program and is among the best wrestling programs in the country. This year, however, the 2019 Sunnyside team is better than ever.”
The coach is confident that Echemendía will make it to the Olympic Games with the U.S. team. “We are all very excited for his future,” he said.
“I competed in local tournaments and won them as well as another series of small competitions. Then I went to the state tournament, the biggest in Arizona, and won it too,” Echemendía said. “A week ago, I represented my state in the Fargo national tournament, and also won in both styles. It’s been years since anyone did that.”
He said he speaks often with his family in the central province of Sancti Spiritus, and acknowledged that’s what he misses the most.
His love for sports came from his mother, who was a gymnast. But it was his father and older brother, both wrestlers, who inspired him to select that sport. At the age of seven, he first represented his neighborhood in a tournament, and his life has been linked to the wrestling mat ever since.
“The Cuban athletes who are in Cuba are very brave. Lacking the right conditions, they nevertheless work hard to hold high the name of their country,” he said.
Echemendía said he came to the United States looking “for big things.” He’s joined the U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete Program, which allows top athletes to continue training as they serve in the military. The program also offers a quick route to citizenship, a requirement to fulfill his dream of representing the U.S. in the Olympics.
“I wanted to open other doors, take advantage of other opportunities. I understand not everyone thinks the same, and that some of my friends don’t agree,” he said. “Whoever is happy in Cuba and wants to stay there, I respect that. I respect everyone’s opinion. But this country is magnificent. Whatever you aim for here, you can do it by working hard.”