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Cubans Win San Juan Bay Swim... PROC Passes Flag to Arroyo

By Gabrielle Paese

July 23, 2004
Copyright © 2004 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Cuban swimmer Gunther Rodriguez made headlines for being in choppy water again, only this time he wasn't trying to elude Dominican authorities. You may remember the former 1999 Pan American Games medallist who quietly walked away from his teammates at the 2003 Pan Am Games last summer and then risked his life to reach Puerto Rico via the Mona Channel on a rickety yola, or wooden raft, along with a boatload of other Cuban refugees. Last week Rodriguez revisited the ocean, finishing second behind his old teammate and fellow Cuban defector Ives Garcia in two back-to-back open water swims that mark the beginning of this Caribbean island's ocean and bay swim season.

Both Garcia and Rodriguez earned 1-2 finishes, respectively, at the Salinas sea swim and the 65th annual San Juan Bay crossing. Additionally, both set course records in each race. In the San Juan Bay swim, which is roughly one nautical mile, Garcia, 25, was timed in 26 minutes, 51 seconds while Rodriguez, 23, finished in 27:10. Participants, of which there were 111 this year, are ferried to Old San Juan and then swim back to Catano. The route they must navigate on their own as the currents can be strong and race organizers do not mark the way with buoys.

"I always carve a wide route so that the current doesn't carry me to the mouth of the bay," said Garcia, who crossed the bay once before in 2002, also setting a record. "This year it was easy because there wasn't much current and very few waves."

Garcia defected from Cuba via the Dominican Republic in 2001, just before 9/11 and bought a falsified passport and a plane ticket to Puerto Rico, reaching freedom via coach class. Rodriguez, however, wasn't so lucky. Barred from sneaking on an airplane due to heightened security measures, Cuba's top swimming prospect hid out in the Dominican Republic until he could get the $3,000 together to buy his passage from La Romana on the shaky wooden craft. That was in September of 2003, and since then his life has changed thanks to Garcia and swim coach Zanoni Lopez, another Cuban exile who came to Puerto Rico in the late Œ90s on a coaching exchange, married and stayed on. Both Garcia and Rodriguez are studying at American University in Bayamon and both work at wholesaler Costco to help pay their expenses. Garcia swims competitively for the university. Rodriguez hopes to do so next year. Garcia is also toying with the idea of representing Puerto Rico internationally. The marketing major married fellow swimmer Daiaraliz Lopez, of Ponce, this past December and admitted last week that local swimming federation presidential aspirants have discussed the possibilities with him.

While Garcia and Rodriguez were the first across the San Juan bay last week, those who finished in the back of the pack were the ones who got the most attention. Adelina "dona Piro" Rodriguez, 82, navigated the choppy waters for her 17th straight year. Toa Baja resident Waldo Mercado crossed in full military garb, including boots, in honor of the fallen Puerto Rican soldiers in Iraq. And 61-year-old Heriberto Sanchez tried to swim his way into the Guinness Book of World Records by participating for the 39th straight year. Sanchez, who works for the electric company, was joined by a son and a daughter, Heriberto Jr. and Maria, this time around. Heriberto Jr. was crossing for his 14th straight year while Maria reached Catano for the 15th time in her career, her 11th consecutive bay swim.

PROC Passes Flag to Arroyo

It wasn't his birthday, but July 21, 2004 will possibly go down as one of the most memorable days Utah Jazz guard Carlos Arroyo has ever had in Puerto Rico. At lunch time, during a ceremony held at the Puerto Rico Olympic Committee's headquarters, he was officially honored with the Puerto Rican flag he will carry into the Athens Games. That same evening, he was given a chance to showcase his talent in his hometown of Fajardo for the first time since signing an NBA contract as the Puerto Rican Olympic basketball team played a scrimmage game versus the Under-21 Argentinean selection at Tomas Dones arena. Just one week since the 6-2 point guard signed a four-year, $16 million contract with the Jazz, he is swimming in local endorsements and his face graces the cups McDonald's is serving prior to the Games.

"It's like a dream come true and I hope I can serve as an example for young people," Arroyo said of the experience. "I still can't believe my image is on the McDonald's cups. It's really neat. It's something I always dreamed about when I was a little kid."

Puerto Rico's delegation headed to Athens totals 43 athletes.

Gabrielle Paese is the Assistant Sports Editor at the San Juan Star. She is the 2000 recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at

Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.

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