Heels Over Head For America When Rio Ramirez fled Cuba, diving was the last thing on his mind

April 05, 1998

Nobody paid attention to the diver, which was just fine with him.
So Rio Ramirez, a 5'6" guy with a Dick Clark smile, stood alone
by the side of the pool at Auburn last Friday night during the
NCAA Men's Swimming and Diving Championships, grinning, looking
up at the U.S. flag that hung from the rafters and talking to
himself. What was he babbling about, anyway? "Just that all my
dreams are coming true," he said later.

This was no exaggeration. Ramirez, 24, a Cuban-born sophomore at
Miami, won the one-meter springboard competition, placed second
in the three-meter springboard and eighth in the platform, and
was named the NCAA Diver of the Year. Standing on the podium
during the awards ceremony, he scanned the boisterous crowd of
Texas fans and Tennessee fans and Stanford fans and Michigan
fans, searching for a familiar face. He didn't find one. "I wish
my family had been here to see this," Ramirez said afterward.
"They would be very proud of me."

Five years ago Ramirez was in San Juan, Puerto Rico, as a member
of the Cuban national swim team at the Central American and
Caribbean Games. During a lull in a practice session, he waited
for his coach to wander off, then took a leisurely stroll
outside and jumped into a waiting car. "My family had no idea I
was going to leave," says Ramirez, who was one of the first of
more than 30 Cuban athletes to defect during those games. "I
didn't want anyone to know. I left because I didn't want to
worry about what I said or thought or did. I just wanted to be
able to work and be free."

When he defected, Ramirez had $13 in his pocket. He stayed in
Miami with some friends of his parents', who had no idea he was
coming until--surprise!--there was a knock on the door. He soon
found a job busing tables and enlisted a friend who spoke
English to call the diving coach at Miami, who was interested
but couldn't offer Ramirez a scholarship because he didn't speak
English well enough to handle a college class load.

A few months later Ramirez met Eleanor and Herman Graulich--"a
nice Jewish family who sort of adopted me," he says. He lived
with them for almost two years while he worked on his language
skills. "I spoke no English when I got here," he says, "but I
learned quickly, through music." He says he listened to Madonna
on a Walkman, repeating her lyrics over and over and over again.
Like a virgin, touched for the very first time. Like a
vir-ir-ir-ir-gin, with your heartbeat, next to mine. "It wasn't
as hard as you'd think," he says.

He finally enrolled at Miami in the fall of '96, and was
national champion in the one-meter board as a freshman. "I never
expected to dive again," he says. "All this is more than I could
have imagined."

This year's event, dominated by a senior-led Stanford team that
won the Cardinal's eighth national title, was made special by
the sagas of several swimmers who, like Ramirez, could not have
imagined being here just five years ago. Back then, Ryk
Neethling, Arizona's Dolph Lundgren look-alike who set an Auburn
pool record by winning the 500-yard freestyle in 4:13.42, was
unable to compete against top swimmers because of international
sanctions against his homeland of South Africa, and before
Nelson Mandela was elected president, Neethling had no hope of
accepting a scholarship at an American university. His father,
also named Ryk, took an 18-hour flight from Johannesburg so he
could be in the stands to watch his son swim.

Lenny Krayzelburg, Southern Cal's backstroke star, also traveled
a long road to end up in a pool in Alabama. Eight years ago
Lenny's father, Oleg Krayzelburg, emigrated with his family from
the Soviet Union to California. Like Ramirez, the Krayzelburgs
didn't leave home for swimming but for freedom. "My parents
didn't want me and my sister growing up without choices," says
Lenny, who became a U.S. citizen three years ago. Now, after
taking home the silver in the 100- and 200-yard backstrokes, he
and Texas senior Neil Walker are America's top two backstrokers.

Although Ramirez has now been in the U.S. for five years, his
thoughts turn frequently to Cuba, where his parents and two
older brothers eagerly await his bimonthly phone calls. He was
hounded by questions from friends and teammates two weeks ago
when four Cuban baseball players escaped on a raft. Would he
have gone that far? Is getting out of Cuba really worth risking
death? "You grow up in America, you take freedom for granted,"
he said. "But in Cuba it's terrible. Everybody there has dreams,
everybody wants a different life. If you have a dream, and
there's a chance to do something about it, you have to do it. If
a person doesn't, what's he left with?"

COLOR PHOTO: KARIM SHAMSI-BASHA Ramirez was one of 30 Cubans to defect in '93 during a regional competition in Puerto Rico. [Rio Ramirez diving]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)