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If you try to draw correlations among the five U.S. triathletes going to the Olympics this year, good luck. There are some parallels, like their willingness to work hard and make sacrifices, as well as a few stories of overcoming adversity. But their journeys to where they are now are all over the map. Each day this week we’ll introduce you to a different member of the U.S. Olympic triathlon team. Today we’re telling the story of Manny Huerta, a Cuban immigrant who edged out pre-race favorites in San Diego to make his first Olympic team.
By the end of 2009 Manny Huerta almost called it quits on triathlon. That year he was with teamTBB and coach Brett Sutton. At Sutton’s request, he even tried his hand at Ironman China in a failed attempt in which he was led off course of the bike, lost his nutrition and severely suffered from the intense heat earning him a DNF on the run. But it wasn’t those circumstances that drove him away from sport. “Midway through the season I had a crash on the bike and hurt my knee,” said Huerta. “I still went to Switzerland [for camp], but around the time we finished the camp, my dad passed away. My grandmother passed away as well, then my mom was diagnosed with cancer in November. To be honest, at the end of 2009 I didn’t even think I was going to be able to do triathlon anymore.”
Huerta’s the type of guy who will, without question, put his loved ones first. In this case, he was there for his family in hard times, even if that meant his dreams were on hold. After all, it’s because of his family—his grandmother in particular—that Huerta was able to pursue his dreams freely.
Huerta was born in Cuba, but his grandmother, Consuelo, fled the communist country to allow her family to start a new life in the U.S. That left a searing impression on Huerta’s being, undoubtedly shaping his strong convictions as an athlete.
But in 2009 everything was still a question mark. Huerta was focused on driving his mom to the hospital for chemo. “When my grandmother died of cancer, it was a big shock for my mom. Then she got it. I needed to be at home.” Miraculously, his mom survived, once again leaving an impression on Huerta to be a fighter himself. “She was inspiration for me to not give up on my dreams,” he said. “I was just fighting for my dreams; my mom was fighting for her life.”
After those dark times, it was back to work for Huerta. He left Sutton, thankful for all the coach had done for him, and began working with Roberto Solano in Costa Rica. “I decided that would be a good fit,” said Huerta.
Their training base in Costa Rica is not only a mellow environment away from the hustle and bustle, but it offers the added physiological benefit of being in altitude—they’re at 7,000 feet on a volcano, in fact. They sleep up high and then drive to slightly lower elevation for training. The natural blood-boosting benefits he gets at altitude have helped Huerta’s performance, he said. “My coach tries to have us get any little advantage we can get. In our racing, even a one percent improvement makes a difference,” said Huerta. “The other aspect: We don’t have internet, no cable and it’s far from urban life. It’s more relaxing. It’s good to get out of the daily life and just focus on training.”
Once hard times were behind him and he had an ideal environment to train, the results started coming. In 2010 he made his debut in the ITU World Championship Series, and in the same year placed top-10 in two ITU World Cup races, finishing the season ranked third American. Then 2011 was arguably his break-out season: His many strong finishes led him to be 2011 Pan Am Games Silver Medalist and earn the title of 2011 USAT Olympic/ITU Athlete of the Year. Among his top finishes, he was first American at the 2011 London WCS race (25th overall)—although, not enough to get an Olympic spot then.
He returned to “the cave” in Costa Rica, as they call it, to train hard in the months leading up to ITU San Diego, the race in which Huerta had to get a top-nine finish to secure an Olympic spot. In Cinderella-story manner, Huerta, touted as the underdog behind Matt Chrabot, Jarrod Shoemaker and Hunter Kemper, pulled through with a ninth-place finish in what he calls “the best race of his life. That was my Olympics,” he said. “I always saw myself having a chance and I try to stay positive. Some people told me I was the underdog so I took advantage of that—having less pressure.”
Before London, the plan was to spend most his days in Costa Rica surrounded by very little—his coach, his girlfriend, some training partners. It’s now Huerta’s turn to put himself first in pursuit of his dreams. In a sense, he’s paying homage to the courage of his grandmother and mom, who will be there in London to witness those dreams come to fruition.