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Volcano key to triathlete's hopes
Chasing the Olympic dream can take athletes to many unique places.
For Manuel “Manny” Huerta, an American triathlete hoping to qualify for the London 2012 Games, it put him on Irazu, an active volcano in Costa Rica.
Huerta’s Olympic journey started in Cuba, where, as a young boy, he watched the Games on state-run television. He also became an avid swimmer and runner, but his opportunities were limited under the communist regime.
“Being born in a communist country, if you are not with the government, you have very little chance of having any type of success,” Huerta said.
The stakes changed in 1997, when he fled with his mother and sister to Miami as political refugees. Once they had settled in the United States, Huerta continued swimming and running before joining a group that provided sports equipment to inner-city youths. Then, at age 15, he developed a new fascination — the triathlon.
“At first it was to stay in shape for the upcoming swimming and cross-country seasons,” Huerta said. But as he got better at triathlons, he realized he was better at it on a national level than he was at swimming or running. So he turned his full attention to the triathlon in 2005.
And, now that he was in America, Huerta’s hard work was rewarded: It got him a cross-country scholarship from Florida Atlantic University and then a spot on USA Triathlon Project 2012, a program to identify top athletes who potentially could achieve international success.
Results soon followed, as Huerta won the 2006 USA Triathlon Under-23 National Championship.
As part of the Project 2012 program, he was invited to live and train at the US Olympic Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he was introduced to altitude. He was at the USOC facility only from 2005 to ’08, but he took a liking to living and training at altitude.
So in 2010, he took up an offer from a fellow triathlete – Costa Rican Leonardo Chacon and his trainer, Roberto Solano – to train with them.
And live on an active volcano.
It sounded like a zany idea, but Huerta quickly learned that by staying at the volcano — it’s 7,000 feet above sea level — 21 days at a time before a major event gave him a performance boost.
“My hemoglobin and hematocrit levels get higher — those are the cells that carry oxygen to your body,” Huerta explained. “(Living at altitude helps) produce a better red blood cell.”
So, before major competitions such as the International Triathlon Union event in San Diego this weekend, Huerta trains in a Costa Rican village at an elevation of 4,000 feet before changing his routine for the final 21 days. At that point, after a day of training in and around the village, he will make a 25-minute drive up Irazu Volcano to get a good night’s sleep. The next day, he will return to town for more training.
“I think that my performance has gotten a lot better (over) the past two years,” Huerta said.
Outcomes indicate he is correct. Last year, he claimed silver during the Pan American Games in Mexico and was the top American male performer at the London and Kitzbuhel (Austria) World Championship Series, all of which earned him 2011 Elite Athlete honors from USA Triathlon.
He hopes for similar success this weekend in San Diego.
Barring a drastic change in the standings, the USA men will have only two spots for London 2012. The top American finisher this weekend will receive one of those berths; if two Americans were to finish in the top nine in San Diego, they would both get a spot. Otherwise, any remaining spots will be filled by a discretionary selection by the USA Triathlon Elite Athlete Selection Committee.
With so much on the line, Huerta feels confident.
“I feel very good and positive, I think I have a very good chance at trials since I know (I am) at my peak fitness,” said Huerta.
Success this weekend means more than the realization of a dream born in Cuba. It also would be Huerta’s way of saying thank you to his adopted country for all it has bestowed on him and his family.
“It’s a dream come true and it’s something that will pay off all the sacrifices that my family and I have made coming over to the US,” Huerta said. “It will feel like payback to the US itself – telling them I was born in a small communist Island yet here I am, I am a hard worker and I made it all the way to the biggest sporting event.
“I think I can also motivate a lot of young Hispanic kids that come to this country and show them that if you do work hard here, your dreams will come true.”
That’s worth staying on an active volcano.
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