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American Athletes Report Back on Racing in Cuba

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As we wrote about last week, 27 American athletes had the opportunity to compete in Cuba over the past weekend, an opportunity that made them some of the first American triathletes to do so since President Obama’s announcement that he would ease travel regulations to the country.

Of the Americans, 19 were amateur triathletes racing a variety of distances and eight were elites competing in the ITU Continental Cup in Havana. Five elites made it into the top 10: On the women’s side, Renée Tomlin (first), Kirsten Kasper (second) and Rebeccah Wassner (10th); on the men’s side, Nick Karwoski (sixth) and Robby Webster (10th). (More about the results here, full results here.)

Prior to traveling to Cuba, the athletes jumped through a decent amount of hoops to secure their ability to enter the country, including a specific visa, travel permit from the treasury department and athlete-specific vouchers—all dealt with in the span of about a month.

Karwoski, who was one of five USA Triathlon Collegiate Recruitment Program athletes traveling on the three-leg trip from Tucson, Ariz., said the actual travel went surprisingly smooth, and thought the biggest issue was dealing with currency. Cuba does not yet accept American credit cards, so before leaving the U.S. he exchanged his cash for Canadian dollars only to discover the exchange rate varied from 77–89 cents, depending on location. (If you’re headed there anytime soon, Karwoski advises to check currency rates—at the time, the pound was the best option.)

Once there, Karwoski echoed the statement often heard after visiting the country: “It felt like being transported back to the 1940s or 50s,” he says, from the architecture to the cars to the simplicity of being off the grid. “Obviously there were no phones, no Internet, no nothing … It was actually great to experience this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity without Facebook or Twitter. I could actually focus on the race.”

On Saturday, training partners Tomlin and Kasper executed race advice from their coach, National Development Coach Jarrod Evans, to earn their first and second spots. “Going into it, [Jarrod] gave us a good race plan and talked strategy and what to expect,” says Tomlin, who just joined the CRP program last April from a collegiate and professional running background. “Coming off of last year’s introduction into the sport and not being able to put together a result I wanted to last season, to start out the way I wanted to in 2015 sets the tone for me for rest of the year.”

Karwoski, who also came from a running background into the program last spring, says the whole experience was a significant one in his short triathlon racing career. “Seeing the USAT President and ITU president there, you got a sense of how monumental and historic this trip was. This will be cool in 10–15 years from now to say I was one of the first Americans to go after the embargo, and one of the first to compete.”

Curiosity piqued? It should be increasingly easier to travel to Cuba as commercial airlines start opening flights and more tourism infrastructure is established. Pro Dan McIntosh, another of the five elite men to compete last Saturday, encourages American triathletes to consider racing there. “No matter if this indeed the beginning of a Cuban perestroika, Americans should enjoy one of the best opportunities in the last 60 years to experience the unique Cuban culture,” he says. “The growing triathlon community is welcoming and provides great potential to improve intercultural relationships through our sport.”