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The Patriot: U.S. Olympian Manuel Huerta
Manuel Huerta knew he’d had the race of his life. After two hours of swimming, biking, and running around San Diego in hot pursuit of a top-nine finish to automatically qualify for the Olympics at the ITU World Triathlon San Diego, he thought had it locked up. Or did he? Upon stepping past the finisher’s strip, he was still not positive where he placed. So he started counting. With a shaky index finger, he pointed to the heads in front of him in the finishing chute. One, two, three, four...he ticked off eight men before he reached himself. Suddenly, he looked up to the sky and buried his head in his hands, seemingly in disbelief of what he had just done. Huerta, 28, a political refugee from Cuba, was a U.S. Olympian.
Huerta’s story is so profoundly impressive, it’s almost hard to believe: a 13-year-old kid, his mom Marta, and his sister Claudia leave everything behind in Cuba to join his grandmother, who fled the communist country by boat in 1981. They have nothing. No money, no possessions. They don’t even speak English. Slowly, Manuel makes friends, joins the local swim team, then the cross country team at his high school, and starts competing in triathlons. He’s a good athlete. So good, in fact, that he earns a running scholarship to Florida Atlantic University and, after that, a spot on the USA Triathlon National Team. But good enough to make the Olympics one day?
Manuel believes so. He leaves his family and friends in Miami to train in Colorado Springs, then Switzerland with Team TBB, and finally, in Costa Rica, where he sets up a training base in a secluded spot 7,000 feet above sea level in the Irazu Volcano. After climbing the ITU ranks for a few years, he’s among the American men to watch in the Olympic year. The little boy who came to this country with nothing is within reach of gaining everything he ever wanted as an athlete: to represent his adopted home on sports’ greatest stage.
Still, Huerta knew this dream would not come true without a perfect race in San Diego.
“There are so many variables with ITU races,” he explains of the draft-legal and super-technical style of racing. “It might take a miracle, it might take everything on race day to fall in the right place. You may be in the shape of your life and if something goes wrong, it could change everything.”
But nothing went wrong for Huerta that day, and when he sprinted down the bright blue carpet toward the finish, it was as though he was floating. As though the weight of his past hardships — not only his rough upbringing but the death of his father to cancer in 2010 and his mother’s subsequent battle with the disease — were lifted off his narrow shoulders, giving him an air of lightness that effortlessly carried his 125-pound frame along the home stretch.
“That was my entire life’s work,” says Huerta of his performance. “It was not just a two-hour-long effort, I spent my whole life working towards that goal.”
Granted, this is just the beginning for Huerta. After all, there’s an even bigger race in London coming up, followed by what Huerta hopes will be a lengthy career. For that, he looks to fellow Olympian Hunter Kemper as a role model, hoping to duplicate his longevity and success.
“Triathlon has changed so much since Hunter began racing [in 1998] and he has been able to change with it. He actually gets better with age,” says Huerta. “I hope I can do the same. I’m sure I’ll learn a lot from him during our time together in London.”
A realist, Huerta knows not to expect another flawless race at his first-ever Olympics. Still, he asserts that he’s not taking a field trip to the U.K.
“A medal would be great, but there are so many amazing guys out there. My goal is to finish in the top 10,” he says. “I just want to prepare the best I can and gain everything possible out of the experience.”
And with his girlfriend, Argentinian triathlete Pierina Luncio, and his mom (now stable after chemo and surgery to treat her melanoma) joining him in London, he plans to make the most of every second he’s not racing, too.“I’ll go to the Opening Ceremony, the Closing Ceremony, and go watch some other events,” he says. “I want to look back in 30 years and say, ‘Wow, I was an Olympian, and those were some amazing memories.’”