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 90s 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.