Huerta overcomes obstacles, odds to join Kemper on Olympic team
An oceanographer might say some of the same water molecules that passed beneath Manny Huerta when he emigrated from Cuba to the U.S. at age 13 washed over him Saturday as he competed in the triathlon that would mint him an American Olympian.
The unheralded Huerta, needing to finish ninth or better at the ITU World Triathlon to claim one of the two spots on Team USA, finished ninth, his face registering disbelief and joy as he decelerated at the finish line. World champion Jonathan Brownlee of Great Britain won the race, having already qualified for the London Games, where he is expected to medal. American Hunter Kemper finished fifth, earning a trip to his fourth Olympics. But Huerta stole the day.
"I don't think people counted on him being there," said Kemper, who seemed as happy for Huerta's finish as his own. "He was a dark horse for sure."
Huerta's performance in the first leg -- the swim -- did not foretell glory.
"I was in one of the last packs," the 5-foot-7 Huerta said. "But I stayed calm, I stayed positive. I caught up and then I put myself in a good position on the bike."
The 28-year-old, who lives in Miami but trains near an active volcano in Costa Rica, overtook three packs of bikers, finishing in a torrid 59:03. Only two men among 62 did better. Brownlee, the runaway winner, clocked 59:48 on his bike.
The finishing seaside 10K saw Huerta position himself as high as fifth before reality seemed to set in, along with heavy legs.
"I knew I was falling back," he said. "I didn't know if I was 10th, if I was 9th, if I was 8th ... "
Still unaware as he churned over the last 50 yards, Huerta counted the runners ahead of him with a raised index finger.
"I realized I was 9th, that's when I realized I was on that flight to London," Huerta said.
Instantly he threw both arms up, shrugging with confusion at what he'd done, his face a pained frown as he fought to keep the tears back. The fight didn't last long.
"This started in 1981 when my grandma moved to the U.S.," Huerta said, his eyes red.
The relative of a successful defector, Huerta and his family felt the eyes of the Cuban government upon them.
"When you live in a communist country and you're already marked, you don't have too many dreams because the government will shut you down," he said. "So the only way for my mom to have my sister and I succeed was to leave the country.
"It's very difficult to leave what you have behind and start from zero. No speak the language, not having any money ... "
The memory of his American arrival was as crisp as the San Diego sky under which he recalled it.
"The first thing I remember -- and it will stay in my brain for the rest of my life -- when I came off the plane and I was at the airport and I looked out and saw the first highway, I saw so many cars," he said. "I never seen that many cars. So many lights, and everything was so good and so beautiful, and back in my country we didn't have anything like that. I said, 'Oh I am in America,' it's just like the movies I watch back at home."
Kemper, the 36-year-old who had overcome a recent arm injury, several surgeries and a severe staph infection to pull off an unlikely qualification of his own, interrupted Huerta to give him a congratulatory squeeze on the shoulder. "Way to go, Manny."
Huerta continued -- not in tears, but in a new fight against them.
"The last couple of laps," he said, "I went out with my heart and at that last, it was everything I had."
Kemper said it was an honor to call Huerta a teammate.
"What a great story," said Kemper, who finished seventh in Beijing in 2008. "It'll be fun to walk around with him [in London]. He's a first-time Olympian, and this is my fourth so maybe I can show him the ropes a little bit. We get to join three special women, I know that."
Friday, the U.S. women's team was finalized when Laura Bennett surged to an inspiring third-place finish on the same Mission Beach course that would see Huerta's triumph. She'll join Gwen Jorgensen and Sarah Groff in London. There's a remote chance that the men's team will add a third member in the coming weeks, but for now it's just Kemper and Huerta, along with their eight-inch height differential and their stories of barriers overcome. Fitting for what may be the most demanding Olympic sport.
The crowd thinned, the temperature dropped, and a wisp of fog found Mission Bay. Huerta, still in his USA unitard, was spotted standing by himself, a cellphone pressed to his ear. It was almost Mother's Day. He had lost his second fight with the tears, in part because his mother Marta is two years into her fight with cancer. His father Hermiño lost his in 2010.
"OK," Huerta said. "Esta bien. Gracias, mama, gracias. Bye bye."
He hung up.
"I told her that we made it," he said. "And she said she was in front of the computer watching. I told her that we're both going to London."
How does it feel, he was asked, for that wide-eyed boy at the Miami airport to be standing where you are now?
Merciless, those tears.
"It's everything," Huerta said. "The Olympics -- it wasn't these two hours, it wasn't [training] the last four years, it's been all my life."