Merman

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

A month or two later, Armas' mom, Maria Hernandez, and several other family members decided to take to the sea to join Ceren in Florida. They organized a trip with a local boat captain. At 2 a.m. one night, Armas — who was about 5 at the time — and his family slogged through the mud of a mangrove swamp to the beach. They didn't want to take the road for fear of being detected. They arrived at the boat just as the police did. The captain turned out to be a snitch.

Armas remembers the next few hours clearly: "They took us to the police station; then they gathered the whole town. People started throwing rocks at us, calling us gusanos [worms], screaming, "Kill 'em, kill 'em."

Armas' mother was fired from her teaching job and sent to work in the sugar-cane fields. His grandfather was ordered to clean sewers. At school, kids jeered at him. "I was confused," Armas says. "All I knew was that we were trying to follow my father."

One day, a swimming coach stopped by Armas' classroom. "Who would like to be on the swim team?" she asked. Armas raised his hand, remembering how proud he was when his father emerged from the ocean with a big grouper. Later that day, Armas and a few other kids walked around the pool. "Who wants to jump in first?" the coach asked. Armas said yes — and the coach pushed him in the deep end. She made him swim a length. "I struggled," he says, "but I did it."

Armas — then a rail-thin kid, all ribs, elbows, and knees — was a natural champion. He won the 25-meter backstroke at his first swim meet, then the regional competition. He was 7 years old. By 9, he dominated the national contest in Guantanamo. At age 10, local authorities decided he should go to Havana to live, study, and train at the National Aquatic School. There would be better living conditions, more food, and other perks.

He trained six-plus hours a day. "I never had a childhood," he says. "I never had a chance to play with toys. All I knew was to be a champion." For the next five years, Armas racked up a neckful of medals. In 1990, he was honored as one of the top young athletes in the nation and finished seventh in the backstroke — the six people ahead of him were adults. Then Armas joined the national team to train for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. His coach was a Soviet-trained monster whom all the swimmers called "The Serious One."

When Armas turned 16, he stood five-foot-11 and weighed 130 pounds. Yet his times weren't improving in the pool. He was exhausted and angry — about his father leaving, his mother's banishment, the teasing, the constant scrutiny. He decided to quit swimming as soon as he finished high school.

After graduation, Armas couldn't find a job. He went from being an Olympic hopeful, eating in a special dining room in a tony section of Havana, to chopping wood back in Santa Cruz and selling it for charcoal on the black market. "I got to the point where I said that I was not going to move a finger for that system," Armas said. "Swimming, something that I loved, was no longer fun. It was sadness and psychological torture."

August 21, 1994. Armas remembers the full moon, the silence of the black water near Santa Cruz. He sat on a raft with 13 other adults and seven children. They were all as soundless as the ocean.

He took nothing with him on the journey, wearing only a plain white T-shirt, jean shorts, and tennis shoes. His grandmother had tucked a Santa Barbara medal in his pocket.

They were on the ocean for four days, barely eating or sleeping. Armas stayed at the front of the raft as a lookout. On the fourth day, a Coast Guard cutter spotted them. The others on the boat cried as they were loaded onto the ship; as it turned out, the rafters were only five miles from Key West.

They were taken to a holding camp in Guantanamo, Cuba. Andy Ramos, a principal working at one of the camp's schools, remembers Armas best of the 30,000 people in the camp. "He would stick by me and want to practice English," says Ramos, who now works as the chess coordinator for the Miami Dade School District. " 'How do you say this? How do you translate that?' He wouldn't stop. He was very persistent... always happy and positive."

Ramos had grown up in Texas, a fourth-generation Mexican-American. He was a huge baseball fan and talked to Armas about the sport. Within a few months, they formed a team. Though Armas had played only a few street games, he "had a rocket arm," Ramos recalls. "Definitely one of the sports leaders in the camp."

Armas stayed at Guantanamo for 18 months and was one of the last to be granted permission to enter the United States. "I'm off to La Yuma," Armas said to Ramos on the day he left; Cubans called the U.S. "La Yuma" because of Yuma, Arizona, and all the Westerns they had seen on television. The U.S. military flew the 21-year-old to Homestead Air Force base in 1996. His father, whom he had seen only once in 16 years, picked him up. "Papa, why are the streets so huge?" he asked. "Why are there so many cars?" Armas would later describe his journey from Cuba to Miami as "like going from black and white into color."

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