Manny Huerta was not anyone's first choice to prevail at Saturday's showdown for U.S. men's Olympic qualifier at the San Diego round of the ITU World Triathlon Series. And even after a bold surge to 5th place and first American most of the way through the run, he was overtaken by long time U.S. star and now four-time Olympian Hunter Kemper in the final mile. But a huge heart, amazing will and an iron refusal to give up on his dream left far better known stars like Jarrod Shoemaker and Matt Chrabot and fellow long shot dreamer Greg Billington in his wake. When Huerta crossed the finish line in 9th place after a sizzling career-best 30:45 10k run, he had earned the coveted second and final U.S. men's Olympic slot free and clear of any protest or closed door machinations known as selectors' discretionary choices.
And for that freedom to dream big, he had a gutsy grandmother to thank for fleeing from Cuba to Florida by boat in 1981. But that move came at a cost to Manny's family as doors were shut by the regime. So finally in 1997 Manny's physics professor mother Marta followed in his grandmother's footsteps, fleeing the communist regime with Manny and his sister Claudia as political refugees. "All of a sudden when you live in a communist country , you don't have too many dreams," recalled Manny, who was 13 when they fled to Florida. "The government will shut you down. So the only way for my mom my sister and I to succeed and to have better life was to leave the country."
Freedom was heady but it came at a price. "It is very hard to leave behind everything that you had" said Huerta after a passionate celebration at the finish. "And start from zero. Not speaking the language. Not having any money. And starting everything from zero. So, I think there are not many things harder for my mother to leave it all behind and come here and bring her children for a chance to dream and succeed. And today, I paid off."
While Huerta has some successes - an Under 23 National title in 2006, a 5th and a 7th at 2010 World Cups in Monterrey and Ishigaki, finishing top American with a 25th place at the London WCS race and a silver medal at the Pan Am Games last year and a stay at the USAT National Training Center at Colorado Springs, his Olympic chances did not seem to be great after a 42nd place finish at the Sydney WTS round early this year where his 10k run split was 33:32 which was another time zone away from top flight ITU racers.
What saved him was road rarely taken. After considering training with renowned coaches like Brett Sutton and Cliff English, he found his perfect fit with Costa Rica-based coach Roberto Solano, who also guides ITU triathlete Leonardo Chacon. In the crucial early 2012 months Huerta lived and trained at 7,000 feet altitude on an active volcano in Costa Rica called Irazu. The athletes lived in an elemental shelter they called a cave and in the purity of their lifestyle Manny carved a better version of himself as an athlete.
Which is not to say the raw material was not there. Manny's run split at the Pan Am Games was 31:50 and his run split at the London WCS, dismissed by many for his mid-pack finish, was 30:53.
Huerta spoke Saturday afternoon after the highest emotions had been spent. But not so late as to forget the hard road he took to get to London.
Slowtwitch: Last year you said you wanted to show kids you could make your dreams come true. How do you feel now after making the 2012 Olympic team?
Manuel Huerta: You know for the past couple of years it’s been very tough. for me and my family. But I never, never, never, gave up on my dream. And I battled through many downs ands many ups as many athletes do. But I knew today it was special. And I knew I was racing for my new country [he became an American citizen in 2000] and I wanted to make my dream to come true. For many young Spanish speaking persons like me, I come to America with that dream. And people like me stick to their dream and they never give up.
ST: How has your training changed? This was the race of your life.
Manuel: I had a very tough day in Sydney [42nd place, ran 33:32] and my coach [Roberto Solano] pretty much told me I needed the race of my life in San Diego And this was it. This is my Olympic Games. I knew there is no tomorrow. I made sure I stick to what I believe. I knew that today I could make something special happen for my family, my coach, everyone watching here and my mom, too, is watching at home. So I am very happy I will be part of this team. And in London I can have a race just like today and come out on top.
ST: When you finished and counted back how many people had finished, when did you realize you had in fact finished 9th and won the second American Olympic slot?
Manuel: You know through the first two laps of the run, I knew I was 4th or 5th. But through the last k, it was all guts. I was falling back and I knew that Hunter had made an amazing comeback. So I didn't know if I was 8th or 9th or 10th.. People kept telling me to push through to the end. So when they said I was 9th, that is when I realized I would be was on that flight to London,
ST: What did you feel when you put your hands to your head? It looked like disbelief?
Manuel: When I set out to do this thing I never done before, I had a little bit of doubt. So even though I tried to stay positive, I couldn’t believe it. That it actually happened. That I did it! Which is so fantastic!
ST: Your latest competitive run split at Sydney was 33:32 -- which would have left you far back today.
Manuel: I knew that it would come down to the run. The past couple of weeks I been focusing on running off the bike. I did very hard bikes and then I did hard runs. Today my swim was pretty much in the last pack [18:17 - 40 seconds off the lead] but I stayed positive. I stayed calm. Then I set myself in a very good position on the bike, moving up through three packs until they caught and merged with the leaders. And then I went out and ran with my heart. At the finish it was everything I had.
ST: What were some of the difficult things you and family went through coming to the USA?
Manuel: Unfortunately my father Hermino passed away two years ago from stomach cancer. And for the past two years my mom Marta has been battling melanoma cancer which has invaded her lymph system. Tomorrow is Mother's Day. So this is the best gift I can give her. That I fight for my dream and I do not give up on my dream.
ST: Your father's death and your mother's fight with cancer must have weighed heavily?
Manuel: All those things have been in my mind. They affected me a little bit . Hopefully she will be in London watching me from the stands.
ST: Could you explain some of the sacrifices your family made when you left Cuba?
Manuel: Our house. Her job. Her family. Her friends. Her customs. Everything. We left everything. We came here with nothing.
ST: What did you remember about coming over from Cuba to the U.S.?
Manuel: The first thing I remember it will stick in my brain for the rest of my life. When I came off the plane at the airport. I look up the first highway and I saw so many cars. I never seen that many cars. So many lights. Everything was so good and so beautiful. Back in the old country we didn’t have anything like that. So all of a sudden I realize. 'Oh. I am in America. Just like the movies I watched back at home.'
ST: When you woke up this morning did you feel like it was going to be a special day?
Manuel: I was very nervous. But I told myself regardless of what happens, I'm going to do the best I can. And when I go to sleep, if I would have been 10th.or 25th or 50th, I would have been satisfied.