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.

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."

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."

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