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TOKYO — Yeisser Ramírez seems to float, dancing on the balls of his feet, as he charges up and down the piste, changing tempo and directions. His bladework is sharp and his mind is often a step ahead of his opponent’s, but it is his footwork that separates him.
You figure out pretty fast how to move your feet when you learn to fence without shoes.
Ramírez, 34, was born in Guantánamo, Cuba, to a family that didn’t have much. When he was chosen at 11 to attend a fencing academy, he explained to a coach that he only owned one pair of shoes, and he was supposed to keep them clean for school. “OK,” the coach said. “Try barefoot.”
So for six years Ramírez trained barefoot, running through the streets until his soles were so callused he could walk on broken glass. He fences épée, in which the whole body is a target, so he was always at risk of a stab. The equipment was so shoddy, he says, that when he was 16, one of his friends died after being hit.
“The épée went through his chest,” Ramírez says. Coaches led the other fencers outside so they would not see the ambulance take the boy away.
As a child, Yeisser watched the Olympics, captivated by the Americans. The team was huge and seemed to win everything. And the gear! He couldn’t believe the quality of the gear they had. At 17, the national team recruited him—and gave him his first pair of fencing shoes. He cleaned them every night.
He heard that the top Cuban national-team fencers worked out once a day, Monday through Friday. He decided to work out twice a day, Monday through Saturday. At 18, he made the senior national team and qualified for the 2005 world championships, held in Leipzig, Germany.
But he came home from practice one day to find his father, Francisco, waiting for him. “I have to tell you something,” his dad said. More than a decade earlier, he had entered Yeisser into the Special Cuban Migration Program, known as the lottery, for a visa to the U.S. He had told no one. And in 2005, Yeisser had won.
“I never thought I would come to this country,” Ramírez says now. “Never, ever, ever.”
At first, it seemed he might not. He was an elite athlete, so the Cuban government did not want him to leave, he says. He says officials took away all his fencing gear, barred him from competing at the world championships and made him ineligible to work, while requiring him to fill out reams of paperwork and pay some $2,000. He considered staying, but he saw the lives the older fencers led: One in particular was 35 years old, extremely successful … and just as poor as Ramírez.
It took him two years, but in 2007, he landed in New York. He soon learned about the Peter Westbrook Foundation, started by Black Olympic bronze medalist Peter Westbrook, which aims to help children from underserved groups fence. Ramírez was not a child, but he was definitely from an underserved group. Westbrook found him a job, paid for new equipment and set him up with a coach.
Ramírez won the 2014 national championships. He became a U.S. citizen in time to compete for the American team at the ’15 world championships, a decade after he should have competed at the event for Cuba. He missed out on the ’16 Games but made the Tokyo Olympic team in April. He lost as an individual in the round of 32 on Sunday but will compete in the team event on Friday.
He believes he is the first Cuban man to fence for the U.S. at the Olympics. “I wouldn’t change my story for anything,” he says.
He has plenty of opportunities to consider what could have been. Over the past few years, Ramírez has seen his former teammates at international competitions. They tease him for becoming a “gringo” and tell him how proud they are of him. In March, at an Olympic qualifying tournament, one friend broke all his blades. He asked Ramírez if he could borrow a spare. Ramírez gave him a brand-new one to keep.
“Wow,” the other man said. “You don’t know what this means to me.”
Actually, he did.
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