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It's Been a Long, Rarely Smooth, Ride for Perez

Track and field: Triple jumper has found a home in Tucson after unhappy stays in U.S. foster homes and being kicked off Cuba's national team.

April 14, 2002|Associated Press

TUCSON — When triple jumper Yuliana Perez fled Cuba after being kicked off the national track and field team, she chose to go to Tucson only because she was born there.

Just 18, she spoke no English and knew no one. Her mother had been shot to death when she was 3. The father she didn't know was in a Georgia prison.

Back in Arizona and exhausted from a day's work as a waitress, she climbed aboard the wrong city bus, and fell asleep. Had she boarded the right bus that day two years ago, she might not be the rising young American star she has become.

But Yuliana Perez has a knack of turning bad circumstances into good.

When she awoke, she was alone, except for the bus driver. He spoke Spanish, and she told him of her athletic past. He said he would talk to his good friend, Mario Pena, an assistant track coach at Pima Community College, to see if he could help her.

"Man," Perez says, "I was born again."

The name "Yuliana" dances off the tongue and matches a cheerfulness and positive attitude that defy the reality she has endured.

Her father was among those sent from Cuba to the United States by Fidel Castro two decades ago, a so-called humanitarian act that actually was a way for the dictator to rid his country of a batch of criminals and mental patients.

Her parents settled briefly in Tucson, where she was born in 1981. A short time later, they moved to Las Vegas. The father was arrested and sent to prison, and Perez moved with her mother and two younger brothers to San Diego.

The circumstances of her mother's death are murky. It may have been an accident, some sort of drive-by shooting.

"That was a long time ago and I'd really rather not talk about it," Perez says. "I can't even remember her face."

At 3, Perez was sent with her brothers to San Diego and put in the care of a woman at a foster home.

"Oh my God, that lady was bad," she recalls. "My brothers, they both had problems wetting the bed, and she'd hit them. I had long, nice hair and she went snip, snip, snip."

Perez says she would sneak out of bed at night to get food for her brothers.

"Once I got caught, and she hit me. I didn't care," she says.

At 5, she was shipped to Cuba to be raised by her paternal grandmother.

After just one year there, her natural athletic ability caught the attention of the country's coaches. She began running, high jumping and throwing a softball, and she excelled at them all.

"One day one of my friends goes, 'I've got something for you that you might not be able to do,'" she says. "I laughed and said, 'You know, I can do everything.'"

At 14, she tried the triple jump.

"I was like, 'That was hard,'" she says, "I tried it again, and then I told my coach, 'I would like to do that.' I kept working and started getting good and good and good, and I liked it."

A few months before she was to graduate from high school, she was told she was being removed from the national team because she was born in the United States and was considered a threat to defect.

Her athletic career in Cuba was finished, and she was shattered.

To make matters worse, she was removed from school, too.

"It was so hard for me to keep going, but I did," she says. "I thought, 'There's got to be something better than this. I miss my mother. I miss my school. I miss my sport. What am I supposed to do now? I have to keep going.' That was when I decided to come to the United States."

The U.S. section of the Swiss Embassy in Havana lent her money to leave Cuba. After arriving in Tucson in February 2000, it took her five months to finally get a job. To ease the stress, she began running again.

The bus driver was true to his word, and Pena brought Perez to meet John Radspinner, Pima's head track coach.

"She says she used to be a triple jumper," Radspinner remembers. "We told her there's not much we can do, because at that point we thought she was from Cuba, and there's just no way we can get someone from Cuba on our team. But I told her this year she can just work out with us if she wants, and she lit up. She was just so happy."

He asked her what her best mark was. She told him 45 feet, 31/2 inches.

"I'm thinking, 'That ain't right,'" Radspinner says, "because we have a pretty good history of triple jumpers and she's talking four feet past our best ever."

He went home, checked the Internet, and found Perez's mark was just what she said it was. Still, Pima offers scholarships only to Arizonans, and there was no thought of getting her on the college team until one day when she and the coaches were talking in Spanish.

"I think one of the coaches said, 'Wouldn't it be nice if we could put her on scholarship,'" Radspinner says. "I said, 'Nope, she is from Cuba.' Then she said, 'Wait a minute. I was born in Tucson.'

"The next day she brought me this old, yellow Scotch-taped birth certificate all in Spanish from the Tucson Medical Center. That just cleared everything."

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