Cesar Herrera was a tall, 14-year-old basketball player in Cuba when he got tapped on the shoulder and asked if he wanted to try rowing.
Herrera, who is 6-3, said yes, and that decision changed his life. He became a two-time Olympic rower, married a rower, and they had two children — both rowers.
On Saturday, Herrera — now the operations director and head coach of the Miami Rowing Club — will be in his element. He will be in charge of 39 boats during the 45th Miami International Regatta, considered South Florida’s premier rowing event.
The event will be held at Miami Marine Stadium on Virginia Key. There are 23 teams set to compete, including some from outside the United States, in the third-oldest international regatta in the nation.
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“Most of the athletes competing on Saturday will be high school kids, and some will be even younger,” Herrera, 63, said in Spanish. “Rowing teaches kids the value of hard work, dedication and commitment.”
Several other powerhouse teams from Florida will compete, including Sarasota, Orlando, Melbourne, West Palm Beach, Hollywood and Miami Beach. School teams from Belen Jesuit and Ransom Everglades will also be represented.
Miami Rowing Club is hosting the event and expects more than 1,000 competitors and roughly 2,500 spectators. Boats will compete on a 1500-yard race course behind the Rusty Pelican restaurant on Key Biscayne.
Andrew Bared, a LaSalle student and the Miami Rowing Club’s varsity team captain, said MRC will have an advantage.
“We row this course every day,” Bared said. “We know every landmark. We know how to pace ourselves and when to make moves.”
Herrera has been the MRC’s head coach for the past seven years, and, during that span, roughly 25 rowers under his supervision have gone on to compete in college.
Back in Cuba, he rowed in three Pan American Games, finishing fourth in Mexico in 1975; winning gold in Puerto Rico in 1979; and taking a silver medal in Venezuela in 1983.
He competed in two Olympic Games — Montreal in 1976 and Moscow in 1980 — and his best finish there was ninth place.
His wife, Yamel Ortiz, won a Pan American Games gold medal in Argentina (1995). After that win, Ortiz and Herrera defected while in Guatemala, and remained there for 12 years as coaches.
Because of some security concerns, the couple left Guatemala for Miami in 2008, and they soon joined forces with MRC. Their daughter, Yailene, is a rower at Jacksonville University, and their son, Fabian, will row at the University of Delaware this fall.
“We’ve dedicated our lives to rowing,” Herrera said.
Bared, who has been rowing for six years, shares his coach’s passion.
“No other sport has challenged me as much as rowing,” Bared said. “I love the sport because you have to be mentally tough. The endurance required is crazy. A 2,000-meter race is probably the most painful thing a rower can endure.”
If you go
▪ What: The 45th Miami International Regatta, South Florida’s premier rowing event.
▪ When: Saturday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., with 35 races scheduled.
▪ Where: Miami Marine Stadium on Virginia Key.
▪ Admission: Free.
▪ Parking: $10 at Miami Marine Stadium