Merman

Faster than a speeding dolphin, this Cuban rafter aims to be world champ

Joel Armas is a strapping guy, solid as a block of concrete, barrel-chested, and handsome except for his feet, which are long, flat, and bumpy. His eyes are big and brown, and his smile is open-mouthed and wide. His posture is straight but not stiff; he moves with an ease and grace that is surprising for someone so muscular. He is 33 years old and, in the mornings, can usually be found at the Westland Gardens Park pool, tucked in a quiet corner of Hialeah Gardens.

On one blindingly bright Saturday morning, Armas sat with his legs dangling in the water. He wore skin-tight black swim trunks and a pair of black swim goggles. The pool had been divided into lanes; Armas was planted on the edge of the middle one. Nearby in the shallow area, three young boys splashed around.

He drew up his leg, resting his big left foot on the edge of the pool. Opening a Gatorade bottle with pink dish detergent inside and pouring the liquid on his foot, he rubbed it all around. Armas then reached for a huge, two-foot-long, black-and-yellow plastic fin. He twisted and screwed his foot into one of the pockets. He grunted. "See how tight this is?" he asked. Then he bent the other knee and jammed his right foot into the other pocket. More grunting.

He slipped into the pool and folded forward. With his arms extending over his head, biceps firmly near his ears, Armas swam, no, undulated, the length of the pool without taking a breath. His spine seemed to be made of rubber as he curved his torso, hips, legs, and the fin in a serpentine motion. At the other end, he did a fluid turn and arrived where he had started in less than 15 seconds.

By now, the three boys had stopped to watch. "Whoa," said one in a loud whisper. "He looks like a dolphin."

Dolphin, merman, el hombre anfibio, whatever. Armas is used to the nicknames. With the help of his monofin, he is one of the fastest swimmers in the world, able to propel himself 50 meters in just under 16 seconds (about five seconds faster than the world record for nonfin freestyle at the same distance). He broke the U.S. men's record in the 50-meter swim during his first international competition, in Italy in 2006, then bettered that time a few months later in Spain. According to the World Underwater Federation, Armas is the ninth-best monofin swimmer in the world. The eight men who have better times live in places such as China, Russia, and Italy — where monofin swimming is a popular sport.

The Merman: Joel Armas

"In this country, the future of monofin swimming is very dark," he sighs. "No one in America cares whether or not I compete."

The Cuban-born athlete has no money, sponsorships, or a team behind him. He has spent tens of thousands of dollars earned as a Broward County firefighter to compete overseas and often must hoist his giant black fin bag on buses or subways to the races. These days, money is even tighter than usual. Armas is on a three-month leave of absence from his job as a firefighter so he can study at Miami Dade College to be a physician's assistant. Because of his age, he will soon have to make a choice: devote more hours to training or give it all up. The rest of the world's champion monofin swimmers are all in their 20s, and Armas knows the clock is ticking for him with every birthday that passes.

Fin swimming is virtually unknown in America — it was started in 1972 by a group of Ukrainian guys, then spread through Russia, China, Greece, France, and Italy. Folks in a handful of Pacific Rim countries now practice the sport, as do a few swimmers in California and Texas. Most Americans use the monofins for training — it's a quick way of strengthening the leg muscles — or for free diving to crazy depths below the sea surface.

Over the years, there's been talk of making monofin an Olympic sport, but it's never become a reality. Armas dreams of changing all that. "I haven't met anyone who has seen this sport and hasn't fallen in love with it," he says.

His path to glory as a monofin swimmer won't be easy. But nothing in his life has been.

He was born September 24, 1975, in Santa Cruz del Norte, a small town in Cuba located halfway between Havana and Matanzas. The place is known for two things: the Havana Club rum factory and fishing. Armas' father, Ceren, and grandfather, Augustin Hernandez, were both expert fishermen. In 1954, Augustin reeled in a whale shark the size of a railroad car.

Armas' parents were both teachers who barely survived on the small salary provided by the Cuban government. Still, his childhood was happy. "He was always running around, trying to play baseball with the other kids," Ceren says. "He was a hyper little boy."

Ceren, a natural athlete who once trained for the Cuban national basketball team, tried to supplement the family's rations by spearfishing grouper, which he cooked in the family's backyard. Then, one night in 1979, he headed for Miami on a small boat. *ck:Fearing reprisal, he didn't say a word to his family, which only learned that he'd made it three days later. "Life changed completely," Armas recalls. The local Communist Party loyalists kept a wary eye on Armas' family after that.

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