What My Father's Escape From Cuba Taught Me About Being An Athlete
"Tell me the story again, Dad."
I asked this over and over as a young girl growing up in a small town in Connecticut. On cool summer nights my dad would smoke a cigar out on our front porch, and I would beg him to tell me again about how he had to leave his dog, Rex, his home and his country so many years ago when he and his family escaped from Cuba.
He always began the same way.
"Things had gotten so bad," he would start, and then proceed to tell me horrific tales of being thrown underneath his bed by his mother in the middle of the night while gunfire crackled out in the street. "Someone may have bought tires on the black market," he recalled, "and they would make an example of him by shooting him in the street." My 8-year-old self could not imagine it and, listening as a child, it was more like hearing an adventure story and not the real-life experience of my dad.
PERSPECTIVE: Throughout my athletic journey there have been tremendous highs and lows. It's easy for a competitive athlete to be consumed with being better, faster, stronger, or the notion that anything less than winning is losing. I learned the real significance of athletic competition at a very early age, when my father would tell me about the challenges he faced -- being forced from his home, hiding inside a trunk to escape to freedom, accepting his limitations as an immigrant on an elementary school playground. It helped me see that what I do in the water, on the bike and on the road is all fun and games.
Racing and training are gifts, no matter the outcome. After hearing my father's stories, of a struggling child in a foreign country who became a successful, happy adult while never taking anything for granted, I can finish a race and feel nothing but gratitude.
My grandparents were wealthy in Cuba. My grandfather owned a thriving construction material business and my grandmother was a socialite. They lived in a mansion outside Havana, with prepared meals, a chauffeur at the ready, tailored clothing and more toys than any boy could ever play with. The family's beloved housekeeper, Hilda, was like a second mother to my father.
The family's fairy-tale existence turned into a nightmare in 1959, when my father was just 9 years old and an evil named Castro destroyed their country seemingly overnight. My grandfather's business, the family's estate and all their assets were in danger of being seized. People were committing suicide in their neighborhood. Daily life in Cuba became unrecognizable, and so my grandfather and his closest friend and confidant, Nelson, started planning their escape.
Racing and training are gifts, no matter the outcome. After hearing my father's stories ... I can finish a race and feel nothing but gratitude.Allie Burdick
On the night of Nov. 1, 1961, Nelson came to my grandparents' home, as he often did. What he had never done is pause at my dad's ear and whisper, "Nos vamos hoy por la noche (We are going tonight)." My father, who was 11 then, had been practicing his role for a week. The details were so vivid as he retold them to me. I would often get goose bumps thinking about how scared he must have been, but at the same time would fantasize about what my own reaction might have been, even longing for a chance at bravery so deliberate, romanticizing their living nightmare.
Nelson owned and piloted a small aircraft and had taken the family on a few trips -- mostly he and my grandfather making runs to different parts of Cuba for supplies or business meetings. So while my grandmother coming along could be explained, the entire family traveling by plane would never be permitted. So it was decided that my father would be hidden as luggage, inside a surveying equipment trunk that had been repurposed with air holes and a rigged top door that could be opened from the inside. He had to be absolutely silent and still in order to pass through the security checkpoint at the airport.
By that November night, my father had spent hours practicing his silent and motionless routine inside the trunk. The moment had arrived for him to put all of his practice to the ultimate test. He had no idea what would happen if he was caught, but he did not let the thought enter his young mind.
PREPARATION: My dad was the first to teach me one of the most valuable tools I use in competition: visualization. By age 9 I was a competitive gymnast. I would get extremely anxious in the hours leading up to competitions and often would not be able to sleep the night before a big meet. My father would tell me to visualize myself doing the perfect routine and to add as many details as possible -- "What do you hear? Smell? See? Make it real and it will become reality." When I think about him as a boy, dreaming of America and practicing for the moment when being silent and still would be a matter of freedom or failure, I know how lucky I am to have learned these lessons from him when the circumstances weren't so dire -- again, that gift of perspective.
To this day, as a 40-year-old masters athlete, I go through the visualization techniques he taught me before every race.
Once in the air, my father was freed from his hiding place. The plane headed east and then abruptly made a U-turn to the north and landed safely in Key West, Florida. Nelson and my grandfather were immediately detained, and then, after an intervention from immigration services, released the next morning. My father doesn't remember all the details of that night, but something that stands out vividly is how hungry he was that next morning. They all went to a local diner, where he ate two large plates of "American" food and drank coffee. From Florida, they moved north to Hartford, Connecticut, where they had some friends they could stay with.
My father and his family moved into a one-room apartment without any furniture -- not even a refrigerator -- and stayed there for six years, slowly accumulating the bits and pieces of home as they worked toward their American citizenship. For a time, his parents earned a weekly sum of wages totaling what my dad's bike cost in Cuba.
"Arriving in this country and going to grammar school was by far the hardest thing I have ever done," he told me. "I could not speak English, so the kids would not speak to me or let me play with them. Think about it, how can you participate in a game without being able to communicate? It was so, so hard."
CONFIDENCE: When I was about 10 years old, competing in a big gymnastics meet, I stepped up to do my floor routine and starting peeing my pants. In front of everyone! I had to go to the car with my dad, change my leotard, and go back out. Of course I didn't want to, but in that moment, my dad told me about how he never wanted to go to school as a young kid my age because of how poor they were in this country and because he couldn't speak English. Instead of thinking of ways to get out of going to school, he spent his time practicing the language and thinking of ways to make himself better, regardless of what the other kids thought. He told me to get out there and do the same -- do the best routine I had in me, regardless of how embarrassed I was feeling, or what the other kids may be thinking about me. I did. And I won the first place on floor that day.
In his first decade in America, my father learned to speak perfect English (although he says he still prays and does math problems in Spanish). His first job was at an electronics store, which would be the first step to a career in telecommunications and technology. The job also helped him pay for and graduate from college. On Aug. 7, 1971, he married my mom, a stunning Italian woman whose family came to accept her Cuban husband because he was "like Desi Arnaz."
My dad has never once complained about losing the life he had in Cuba. He still gets sad when he talks about having to leave Rex or not being able to tell Hilda what was happening, simply leaving without a goodbye hug and kiss.
Instead, he exudes positivity and a sense of gratitude. He takes very seriously the life lessons Hilda passed on to him -- control your anger, smile at everyone, take pride in everything you do, don't let anyone get the upper hand, try to convey your thoughts with dignity, and most importantly, "What your mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve."
COMMITMENT: In 2014 I earned a spot on the world championship duathlon team and represented the United States. During my training for the race, I often thought about how much my father sacrificed to become an American citizen and what it meant to him to now have his daughter representing this country in athletic competition.
My dad had everything to do with me becoming part of that team, as he is always in my head during my competitions and, since my days as a young gymnast, has always told me exactly what I needed to hear to be the very best. My entire family traveled to Spain to watch me compete. I don't think my father has ever been more proud than when I was wearing my Team USA uniform and dashing across the finish line.
With all that has happened in the relationship between Cuba and the U.S. in the past year, we are hopeful to be able to return to the country of my father's childhood, walk down the streets together and once again listen to his stories.
"What the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve."
Allie Burdick is happiest when writing or sweating. She blogs at vitatrain4life.com, but her proudest accomplishment is having and raising her healthy twin boys, who challenge her more than any race.