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Armas found a job as a lifeguard at West End Park in Miami and soon tried out for the Miami Dade College baseball team. "He's the best hitter I've ever seen at that level," says Tony Garcia, a family friend. "In our social leagues, our beer leagues, he would average .661, .714, .707 at bat. It was unreal what Joel could do." Garcia even took his young friend to try out for the Mets, and a coach there told him to spend some time playing college ball.
The next few years were a blur. Armas enrolled at Florida Metropolitan University, dropped out, and dabbled in singing salsa. In 2002, he won a car on Sabado Gigante. In 2002, he enrolled in firefighter-paramedic school and was hired by the Broward Sheriff's Office. He was also a part-time lifeguard. He was also a part-time lifeguard. One day in 2005, he was at Flamingo Pool in Miami Beach. He noticed a tall, bald guy swimming fast laps in the pool with a strange-looking fin, like a whale's tail, unlike anything Armas had ever seen. The guy was Cayetano Garcia, a lifeguard on the beach and a fellow Cuban. "Puedo probar esas monaletas?" Armas asked Garcia. Can I try those fins? Garcia said yes.
Armas swam a length, and then Garcia asked if he could swim 25 yards underwater. Sure, Armas shrugged. Stopwatch in hand, Garcia told him to begin. "I couldn't believe it," Garcia says. "Seven-point-five seconds. He was faster than I was."
Garcia, who is about 15 years older than Armas, was no newcomer to the monofin. He was trained by Russians in Cuba in the early '80s and won several competitions on the island and for the United States after emigrating. In fact, when he met Armas, he held the U.S. record of 18 seconds in the 50-meter race. "I want to give you this monofin," Garcia told Armas that day in the pool. "I've got a feeling that you're going to be a world-ranked champion in the sport."
Under Garcia's tutelage, Armas started to train for his first world competition in Ravenna, Italy. It was unlike Cuba. There was no one telling him what to do, what to eat, and how to think.
He had just started dating his now-fiancée, Teresa. She recalls that he spent four hours at the pool every day, starting at 5 a.m. "He was so positive about everything in life, so motivated," said Teresa, a doctor in Miami who is also from Cuba.
Armas came in 17th in that Italian competition and broke Garcia's U.S. fin-swimming record. He's placed in the top 20 in more than a dozen competitions around the world since then but has never finished in the top five.
Earlier this year in Hungary, he placed ninth. This summer, at a contest in Torino, he came in 12th. These days, when Garcia has to work on the beach, Armas cajoles the lifeguard at the Hialeah Gardens pool to time him. He's spent his own money to buy two pairs of fins (around $700 apiece) and figures he's shelled out more than $20,000 on travel. He's tried to enlist companies such as Red Bull and Nike as sponsors, but the answer is always no.
At overseas competitions, everyone knows who he is. At six-foot-two and 220 pounds, he makes most of the other swimmers look like Lilliputians. "I'm the Americano," Armas says, grinning. "I'm not the best in the world, but I'm the most recognized." His weight is both a liability and an asset: being so muscular gives him the strength he needs to propel the fin and swim fast for 50 meters. But a smaller frame is best for longer races.
In September, just as the fin-swimming season drew to a close, Armas put his training on hold for a few months. He wants to concentrate on his studies — in case his future as a professional fin swimmer doesn't work out. But he's still hoping. "I'm doing what my original country would never let me do," Armas says. "I'm prouder to represent the United States, this country, than Cuba, my home country."