Miami rower goes from Little Havana to Princeton to the Olympics

A crowd of 30,000 cheered from the stands and a flock of sheep grazed nearby, as the Olympic lightweight fours semifinal got under way Tuesday afternoon at the picturesque Eton Dorney Rowing Center, a 400-acre park near Windsor Castle. Competing in the U.S. boat was Robin Prendes, a Cuban immigrant and Miami Coral Park High grad who got his start rowing early mornings in the mucky alligator-infested canals near Miami International Airport.

His parents, Rodolfo and Vicky Prendes, and his cousin, Joaquin, were overwhelmed by the occasion. Although Prendes’ boat finished fifth, eliminating it from medal contention, and he was understandably dejected, his family felt like placing a gold medal around Prendes’ neck.

The Olympic rowing regatta is a far cry from the Little Havana efficiency where the Prendes family lived for five years upon arriving from Cuba in 1995. Robin was 6 when they left Matanzas, and the Prendeses had just lost an 11-year-old son and promising swimmer, Rodolfo Jr., to leukemia.

“We told Robin, ‘We got to this country late, but you are the one who has the doors open, you have all the opportunities in the world,” said Vicky Prendes, a patent assistant at a law firm. “And look where he is, at the Olympics, with an economics degree from Princeton University. It’s truly a miracle. In our minds, he is a winner, in life and in rowing.”

Rodolfo Prendes, who runs a lawnmower/small engine repair shop, recalled his son’s early days in the sport. He was turned away from established rowing clubs, and relegated to the worst lanes because he was unknown. But his determination, and the generosity of local coaches Rolando Serra, Roberto de Armas and Francisco Viacava paid off.

“We think it’s important to show the Hispanics in Miami that, yes, you can make it if you want it bad enough,” the proud father said. “This is a rich man’s sport, and we had no money. When Robin was first turned away from a club, he cried. At 15, he told us, ‘I want to go to a good college.’ We told him we couldn’t afford it. I took him to the muddy canals and said, ‘There is money in there.’ Robin said, ‘There is? Where?’ I told him, ‘If you get up at 5 in the morning every day, I will bring you here you’ll see the money will show up.’ Coach Serra told him the same thing.”

His mother, a former Cuban national team swimmer, told him if he rowed “like they do in the movies,” over and over, day after day, he would win races.

He woke up early every day and rowed. His friends made fun of him, joking that rowing was his girlfriend. His parents’ friends told them they were foolish for dreaming, that there was no future in rowing. By his senior year in high school, he had scholarship offers from Princeton, Cornell and Columbia. Last year, he was invited to live at the U.S. Olympic training camp in Oklahoma City.

“He was a soldier, so focused, so disciplined, like a horse with blinders on,” Prendes’ mother said.

That tunnel vision was evident Tuesday. After the race, he was in no mood to discuss moral victories for his young team, nicknamed “Ivy League 4” because all four rowers — ages 23-25 — were Ivy Leaguers. Never mind that the Great Britain, Swiss and Dutch teams that advanced to Thursday’s A final are experienced whereas the U.S. boat was thrown together four months ago. Prendes was not satisfied with the consolation B final, to determine sixth place through 12th.

“We hoped to be a little more competitive,” he said. “There was a bit of a crosswind so it pushed us to the side, and we were never able to get our rhythm. We were struggling to keep pace. Hopefully, if I keep rowing four years, I’ll have a more clear head coming into this stage. It was a phenomenal learning experience.”

He said he took a moment before the race to remember the American Barge Club in West Dade, the Miami Rowing Club in Key Biscayne and the Miami Beach Rowing Club, all of which played a part in his success.

Prendes didn’t march in the Opening Ceremonies because he had to race the next day, and the rowers have been secluded at their own village near the venue. But they move to the main athletes village Aug. 7.

“There’s this allure with the Olympics, and maybe I’ll have more of that experience once I get to the village, but so far, it felt like another race,” he said.

The event had been over for more than an hour, it was drizzling, and the Prendeses waited in the family greeting area, hoping to get a word with Robin. They know it is best to give him space after a loss. They finally spotted him walking briskly toward the bus, hat pulled low, headphones on. “Robin! Robin!” his mother yelled. “Robin!” his father followed. No response.

His cousin, who is 5 years older and as close to him as the brother he lost, smiled. “Robin needs to be alone now. But he knows that win or lose, his family is super proud of him. From Little Havana to the Olympics. What a story.”

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