Linda Robertson

Life’s work finally paying off for Olympian Manuel Huerta

When Manuel Huerta was growing up in Cuba, the spear fishermen along Miramar Beach chose him, a stem of a boy with aquamarine eyes, to be their helper. He was stronger than he looked.

They swam a half-mile out, and while Manolo Portales and a crusty-skinned guy called El Rubio held their breath and dove 30 to 50 feet in search of snapper or grouper, Huerta waited at the surface, treading water and holding the buoy line that grew heavy with dead fish. When they returned to shore, he was always rewarded with one fish, the smallest catch, which he took home to his mother and sister for dinner.

On those days in the ocean, kicking his legs and whirling his arms for two hours, Huerta’s imagination was prodded by the current. He wanted to be an athlete. Nobody could call him a weakling if he was in the Olympics.

As he rode his clunky Chinese “Flying Sparrow” bike around Havana and hauled it up two flights of stairs, he began to think of cycling less as a hardship and more as a training regimen.

Later, as a poor kid in Miami, he began to run. His vision was coming into focus. Nobody could tell him inner city immigrants didn’t do triathlons. And they certainly shouldn’t aspire to something as impractical and unrealistic as wearing a USA uniform in the Olympics.

But when the London Games commence July 27, Manny Huerta will be marching in opening ceremonies, and when the men’s triathlon is contested Aug. 7, Huerta will be swimming in the Serpentine, cycling around Hyde Park and running past Buckingham Palace.

Hardly anyone expected Huerta’s crazy American dream to come true. Now that it has, hardly anyone would be shocked if he won a medal.

“It’s been a long road,” said Huerta, 28. “It’s been my life’s work, and I feel like it is paying off thanks to the people who stood by me during the hard moments.”

If you live in South Florida, you’ve probably seen Huerta running along Old Cutler Road, pedaling up the Rickenbacker Causeway bridge, swimming laps at Jose Marti pool. To Miami’s booming triathlon community, he is a local hero.

Training hard

He lives near Miami International Airport with his mother but has spent the past month at his altitude training site — the 12,000-foot Irazu volcano in Costa Rica. He stays in a farmhouse halfway up the peak with his training partner, coach and girlfriend.

“We get a lot of brief earthquakes,” Huerta said. “The week before Olympic trials I was playing video games when the whole house started shaking. I shouted, ‘Run outside!’ but it was only a temblor. Our standard joke is: If this thing erupts, I’ll race you downhill.”

Huerta boosts his red blood cell count in the thin air. The house sits above the clouds on a strawberry farm and adjacent to a flower farm. During cool nights, fruity scents and coyotes’ howls fill the air. In the morning, Huerta is awakened by roosters and cows.

It’s a monastic spot. No Internet or cellphones.

“Very peaceful,” Huerta said. “A simple existence with no distractions. In the evenings, we play UNO, make dinner, go to sleep early.”

He was invited to train there by Costa Rican triathlete Leo Chacon and coach Roberto Solano, an exercise physiologist. They run and bike in the Orosi Valley and there’s a pool and track in the town of Cartago. Occasionally, they run on the high, steep, muddy paths that make Huerta’s Garmin profile resemble a trek through the Himalayas. They’re always accompanied by their guide, a dog named Matiz.

“He can go seven-eight miles and still have enough energy to chase horses and birds,” Huerta said.

Life at the volcano reminds him of his days in the ocean, when his mind could float.

Huerta decided to leave the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs three years ago when he found ideal conditions in Costa Rica.

“In Colorado Springs, we went through several coaches and I had no say on my training plan,” Huerta said. “And, in Costa Rica I’m training with people from other countries so we are not competing and thinking, ‘I got to beat that guy this weekend and he’s going to hate me Sunday night.’ It’s tough to be friends with a guy who wants your spot.”

It’s working. Huerta, the third-ranked American triathlete, and native Floridian Hunter Kemper, ranked fourth, were not supposed to qualify for the two spots on the U.S. team. But they did by virtue of their point totals after an international race in San Diego in May. Kemper finished fifth. Huerta had to finish ninth or better to make the Olympic team.

He finished ninth. By nine seconds.

“The underdogs did it,” he said. “I knew I needed the race of my life. After the bike I was fourth or fifth. But in the last mile of the run, several guys passed me. I lost track. I was fading.

“When I came through, people were yelling, ‘You got it!’ But I wasn’t sure. I counted heads in the finish area and when I realized I was No. 9 by such a close margin I got very emotional.”

Emotional moment

He cried, and his mother and Huerta believers all over South Florida cried as they watched the webcast.

Martha Ayala, 50, was told by doctors that her son would always have coordination problems on his left side after a difficult birth caused neurological damage.

“The forceps squeezed part of his skull,” Ayala said. “No one thought he would be good for anything.”

Ayala read that swimming could help Huerta’s development.

“When he was 22 days old, I took him to the beach and held him in the water,” she said. “Gradually, he learned to swim.”

She also enrolled him and his younger sister Claudia in swim classes.

“It was my mother’s will that got me to where I am,” Huerta said.

Ayala believed in her children’s futures, so she left Cuba and her career as a university physics professor behind in 1997, and began anew as a nobody in Little Havana, just as her mother had done during the 1980 Mariel boatlift. Manny spoke no English. He joined the swim and cross-country teams at Jackson High to make friends and pursue his Olympic goal.

Ayala worked double shifts as a waitress at a Latin American cafeteria and a pizza parlor. When her mother opened a driving school, Ayala became an instructor and has remained one. She knows how to teach, but teaching people how to drive in Miami is like teaching someone how to garden in a desert.

Muy dificil [very difficult],” she said with a smile. “You are trying to show people how to do it right when everyone around them is doing it wrong.”

Money was always scarce.

“I remember when my mother was finally able to take us to Disney World,” Claudia said. “At the turnstile, she paid for our tickets with coins and dollar bills she had been saving for that occasion.”

Martha and Claudia awoke at 4 a.m. on many weekends to set up cones and water stations for local triathlons. Because they volunteered their time, race organizers waived Huerta’s registration fees, which can run upward of $75.

Ayala was diagnosed with melanoma two years ago and the cancer spread to lymph glands in her legs. She underwent two operations and chemotherapy and “the PET scans have been looking good,” Huerta said.

Also in the past two years, his father died (he divorced Martha when Huerta was five and moved to Colombia to produce telenovelas but always maintained an amicable relationship with his children and ex-wife) and his grandmother died.

Turning point

Huerta’s determination to go to the Olympics remained strong, tempered by his disappointment in 2008, when he dropped out of trials during the bike portion and sat sobbing on a curb.

“That was a turning point,” he said. “For four years I’ve had flashbacks of that race.”

As Huerta heads to London, he wishes he could bring his team with him. It takes a village to raise an Olympic triathlete.

Huerta was inspired to be a triathlete by Ralph Garcia, who coached an inner city club called the Phantoms. Garcia hustled donated gear for the kids, borrowed bikes, drove them to races, trained them at Hadley pool and Amelia Earhart Park.

“Manny was never physically imposing, but he had a big heart,” said Garcia, who works at Footworks. “Of all the kids, he persevered.”

Huerta was encouraged to run by Jackson High coach Jose Negron. He received a scholarship to FAU from coach Alex Smolka. Robert Pozo, a Miami Marathon founder, got Huerta his first top-notch bike, a purple Fuji. The Hammerheads club welcomed him. The Cuban owners at Bikes To Go poured him Cuban coffee and tuned his Orbea. Lisa Dorfman gave him shoes and nutritional advice. Mike Estevez, owner of Pinecrest Fitness, held a spinning fundraiser for him. Even Fidel Castro’s sister, Juanita, made a donation.

Huerta’s “psychologist, chef, massage therapist and training partner” is his girlfriend, Pierina Luncio, 28, whom he met in Argentina.

“Manny?” asked Miami triathlete Mickey Witt one morning at Marti pool when she and Huerta climbed out of the water. “I saw you in the lane next to me and I was so excited. We are so proud of you. You’re motivating all of us.”

Huerta said he was grateful for the support and gave Witt a hug. Another regular at the pool offered to help Huerta arrange lodging for his family with a friend in London.

The day before, Huerta had gone running with Belen High students and their coach, Frankie Ruiz. They had visited him in Colorado Springs.

His sister Claudia, a Navy officer in Virginia, said Huerta’s quest has had a ripple effect. She was injured in a boat accident in Kuwait, broke three vertebrae and both feet, was told she wouldn’t walk again.

“Today, I’m running,” Claudia said. “They told me there was no hope. They told my mother she wouldn’t survive cancer. They told Manny he would never be an athlete.

“We didn’t accept those answers and now we’re all going to London.”

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