Angel Perez's struggle to gain clearance to compete for the United States in last year's Sydney Olympics attracted international media attention. He will paddle on Lake Lanier in this weekend's Wachovia World Cup.

By Dan Washburn

April 13, 2001 — Angel Perez will represent the United States in this weekend's Wachovia World Cup on Lake Lanier. That is a certainty. No doubt about it at all.

And that makes the 30-year-old kayaker smile.

"Right now I feel so relaxed and comfortable," Perez said standing in the sunshine Wednesday afternoon at the Clarks Bridge Park Olympic boathouse.

Relaxed. Comfortable. Perez was neither leading up to last year's Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.

These weren't just pre-race jitters, either. Because for the longest time, Perez didn't know if he was going to be allowed to race at all.

Perez is a Cuban defector. He fled his former country for the United States in 1993. He's lived in Miami since then, but for a variety of reasons didn't officially become a U.S. citizen until 1999.

That fact nearly cost Perez his dream of paddling as an American in the Olympics.

According to International Olympic Committee rules, Olympic athletes must have achieved citizenship in their current country at least three years prior to competition. Otherwise, they must be granted permission to compete by their native country.

Cuba's response was a resounding, "no."

That news came in March. Three months later, his Olympic status still uncertain, Perez earned his spot on the American team with a dominating performance at the U.S. trials.

In the months that followed, Perez waited and waited, and filed appeal after appeal. One after the other, they were rejected. But Perez kept training. He always trained.

"I carried that problem for the whole year," Perez said. "I was working with the (United States Olympic Committee), working with the Cuban Olympic Committee, trying to make some deals. But Cuba always refused to give me my release."

Cuban Olympic Committee president Jose Ramon Fernandez told the Associated Press at the time that the United States "should be ashamed of attempting to use foreign athletes from a poor nation such as Cuba to win medals."

But Perez filed for political asylum when he arrived in the United States. The fact was, he couldn't return to Cuba without facing retribution.

Perez had also lived in America for seven years. He paid taxes in America. He married an American. His son was born an American. But still, it appeared unlikely that Perez would be permitted to paddle as an American.

Not allowed to live in the Olympic village with his teammates, Perez stayed in a Sydney apartment. He waited and trained, waited and trained. And the U.S. team waited with him.

"I can say it was the worst part of my coaching career ever," U.S. national team coach Jerzy Dziadkowiec said. "We didn't know five days before (the Olympics), and I was almost out of my mind. I didn't know what to do. We were on a scale. One day up. One day down."

Things appeared bleak for Perez. Less than two weeks before racing was set to begin, the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the highest court for amateur sports, denied another appeal. But Perez still kept training.

"It was painful," Perez said. "I was mentally exhausted. I tried to keep focused on training. There were many nights I couldn't fall asleep thinking of the situation. But physically I think I handled it pretty good. I tried to do the best I could."

Time was running out. Perez issued one final appeal. And finally, somehow, it was granted. Perez was cleared to compete.

The news came five hours before the deadline to submit entries for sprint kayaking and three days after the Games' opening ceremony. Perez was an 11th-hour Olympian.

And he helped paddle the United States to sixth-place finishes in the K-4 1000 meters and the K-2 500.

"He is a hero for me," Dziadkowiec said. "He is a hero. Two sixth-place finishes in the Olympic finals, after all he had to deal with, is an outstanding achievement."

Perez can handle adversity. There's no doubting that. He lived in communist Cuba for 23 years. That was long enough.

Perez was a star performer for the Cuban national team from 1988-1993. During that time, he won 21 gold medals at the Pan American Games. He also represented Cuba in the 1992 Olympics.

By then, however, Perez already knew he was going to defect. It was a plan he and two teammates had hatched in secrecy.

On May 22, 1993, during a competition in Mexico, the trio broke camp in the middle of the night and raced through the countryside. They swam across the Rio Grande and into Laredo, Texas.

Perez said he had $60 in his pocket — and mixed emotions.

"Happy, because you're going to be like a free man," explained Perez, whose parents and four brothers still live in Cuba. "At the same time fear, because when you come from a communist regime you have what we call the police inside you. You think everybody is watching you.

"We were just very scared. We jumped into the river and swam to the other side like crazy."

Perez was invited to train with the U.S. team after the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. He now lives in Miami with his wife Mari and 4-year-old son Andres. He works at Home Depot as part of the Olympic Job Opportunities Program, which allows him to train daily.

Perez often thinks of the family and country he left behind. But he has no regrets.

"Believe me, if communism is not that bad, not too many people would leave the country and put their life at risk to escape," Perez said.

"I have had the chance to live in both systems. And thank God I made the right choice to live here and be a free man. I feel comfortable in the U.S. I'm a citizen. I feel like I'm part of this country."

Dan Washburn is a sports writer for The Times in Gainesville, Ga.
Copyright © 2001 by The Times