Manny Huerta was never supposed to compete in the Olympics. It was a preposterous dream for a scrawny kid in Cuba who loved to swim in the ocean with the spear fishermen of Miramar Beach.
The Olympics? A fantasy for a poor immigrant in Miami who had no bike, nowhere to run.
But Huerta was one of 55 triathletes diving into brisk Serpentine Lake, cycling past Buckingham Palace and running around Hyde Park on Tuesday as 200,000 spectators lining the course shouted the name on his bib.
“Come on, Huerta!” they cried.
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Most of them had no idea how far Huerta had come to get to London. From an inner-city high school. From a Little Havana junior triathlon team held together on a shoestring by his first mentor. From the backyard pool of a family that made him one of their own.
But Huerta’s mother knew all about the journey, because she had been with him, all the way to the starting line of the 2012 Olympics. She sacrificed her career so her son could have one as a triathlete.
It was all worth it as Martha Cardenas watched her son cycle under the Wellington Arch and run past the Princess Diana Fountain.
“It’s a dream I’ve been saving,” she said. “Now it has come to light.”
She could see Huerta was struggling. He emerged from the 1,500-meter swim near last place, scraped off his wetsuit, buckled on his U.S.A. helmet and slid onto his bike. He made up some time during the 25-mile bike portion, bridging from the last group to the middle pack. But not nearly enough to be anywhere close to Great Britain’s Brownlee brothers, Alistair and Jonny, or Spain’s Javier Gomez.
“Vamos, Manny!” Cardenas shouted when he passed, her hands clasped. Huerta’s girlfriend, Pierina Luncio, and friends from South Florida yelled and waved a sign. But they could tell he wasn’t right.
He started to feel queasy after the swim. On the bike he got cramps. And then he began vomiting.
“I threw up dinner and then breakfast and then anything else left in there,” Huerta said. “I threw up so much that the muscle contractions made it feel like someone punched me in the stomach.”
Yet on he went, slipping out of his bike shoes, dashing into the transition area, removing helmet, pulling on running shoes. In triathlon, a combination of three incompatible sports, there’s no time to pause, no time to let your aching thighs recover before asking them to run six five-minute miles.
“I didn’t want to give up,” Huerta said. “The crowd was amazing, my family and friends were in the stands and a lot of people in Miami were watching.”
People like Ralph Garcia, who had recruited 13-year-old Huerta to his Phantoms triathlon team, driving them to the Hadley Park pool, lending them donated bikes for races. Or the folks at Pinecrest Fitness and Ludus Tours, who raised money for his mother’s travel expenses. Or the Cubanos at Bikes To Go, the pals on the Hammerheads, the regulars at Jose Marti pool.
“Miami kind of adopted Manny,” said Gabby Pozo, who flew to London with husband Robert and daughter Nina to cheer for Huerta, whom Robert had coached in their pool, on runs through their Palmetto Bay neighborhood, on rides to Key Biscayne. Sometimes he spent weekends at their house. Robert, a race organizer, would waive Huerta’s registration fees in return for his help at the course.
“To see him at 13 when he was handing out water at races and couldn’t speak English and to see him now, an Olympian, it’s unbelievable,” Pozo said. “He always came back to our races. He’d get there early and help set up, then win the event, then help clean up after.”
The Pozos couldn’t resist coming to London but they suffered as Huerta suffered on the four laps of the 6.2-mile run.
“I’ve never felt that sick in a race,” said Huerta, 28, who thinks a salad was the culprit. “By the time I got to the run my brain was starting to quit. It was the longest 10K of my life, but I had to finish.”
Cardenas, 50, felt pain for her son, looking pale and losing minutes each time he passed. It wasn’t easy for her to make her first trip to Europe, a year after surgery and chemotherapy for melanoma.
“I wanted to jump over the fence and give him a push,” she said, just as she had 22 days after his problematic birth, when she dipped him in the ocean “and he came up like he should have come out of the womb, crying and fighting,” she said.
“Vamos, mi hijo!” she shouted.
She said it was she who used to pull him, to the pool in Havana and then to better opportunities in Miami, in the process giving up her job as a physics professor to become a waitress at two restaurants, and now an instructor for Easy Method Driving School. She returns to work Thursday. “I’m still teaching. But I wouldn’t want to teach here. Crazy driving — on the wrong side!”
She persevered, he could, too, Huerta thought when he wanted to collapse by the side of the Serpentine with two miles to go.
Huerta’s younger sister Claudia couldn’t make the trip. She’s pregnant and had high blood pressure three days ago. Claudia injured her back in a boat accident while serving in the Navy in Kuwait. Doctors told her she might never walk again, but, with Huerta’s encouragement, she’s jogging, and it helps her alleviate chronic pain.
He’s been an inspiration to many. He’s forged his own career with little sponsorship money. He lives in the same little house with his mother. He does altitude training on the side of 12,000-foot Irazu volcano in Costa Rica, staying in a farmhouse above the clouds, letting the howls of coyotes and the scent of strawberry plants lull him to sleep.
When Huerta crossed the line Tuesday in one hour, 53 minutes and 39 seconds, in 51st place, 7:14 behind winner Alistair Brownlee, he hunched over and was taken to the medical tent, where he retched again and was given two IVs as a doctor watched over him. It wasn’t the race he’d envisioned.
“I know my friends and relatives are proud but as an athlete you come to the Olympics to be competitive,” he said. “I trained to be in the hunt.”
He was disappointed but he’ll always remember Opening Ceremonies, posing with LeBron James, living in the athletes’ village.
“I’ve had a lot of ups and downs, and it’s the downs that have motivated me to be better,” he said.
He wanted to find his mother, to let her know he was weak and dehydrated, but OK. There was something in his mind that kept him going when his body wanted to stop. It was her faith in him. He wanted to thank her for coming with him, all the way to the finish line of the Olympics.