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Heels Over Head for America
Jeff Pearlman
April 06, 1998
When Rio Ramirez fled Cuba, diving was the last thing on his mind
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April 06, 1998

Heels Over Head For America

When Rio Ramirez fled Cuba, diving was the last thing on his mind

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Nobody paid attention to the diver, which was just fine with him. So Rio Ramirez, a 5'6" guy with a Dick Clark smile, stood alone by the side of the pool at Auburn last Friday night during the NCAA Men's Swimming and Diving Championships, grinning, looking up at the U.S. flag that hung from the rafters and talking to himself. What was he babbling about, anyway? "Just that all my dreams are coming true," he said later.

This was no exaggeration. Ramirez, 24, a Cuban-born sophomore at Miami, won the one-meter springboard competition, placed second in the three-meter springboard and eighth in the platform, and was named the NCAA Diver of the Year. Standing on the podium during the awards ceremony, he scanned the boisterous crowd of Texas fans and Tennessee fans and Stanford fans and Michigan fans, searching for a familiar face. He didn't find one. "I wish my family had been here to see this," Ramirez said afterward. "They would be very proud of me."

Five years ago Ramirez was in San Juan, Puerto Rico, as a member of the Cuban national swim team at the Central American and Caribbean Games. During a lull in a practice session, he waited for his coach to wander off, then took a leisurely stroll outside and jumped into a waiting car. "My family had no idea I was going to leave," says Ramirez, who was one of the first of more than 30 Cuban athletes to defect during those games. "I didn't want anyone to know. I left because I didn't want to worry about what I said or thought or did. I just wanted to be able to work and be free."

When he defected, Ramirez had $13 in his pocket. He stayed in Miami with some friends of his parents', who had no idea he was coming until—surprise!—there was a knock on the door. He soon found a job busing tables and enlisted a friend who spoke English to call the diving coach at Miami, who was interested but couldn't offer Ramirez a scholarship because he didn't speak English well enough to handle a college class load.

A few months later Ramirez met Eleanor and Herman Graulich—"a nice Jewish family who sort of adopted me," he says. He lived with them for almost two years while he worked on his language skills. "I spoke no English when I got here," he says, "but I learned quickly, through music." He says he listened to Madonna on a Walkman, repeating her lyrics over and over and over again. Like a virgin, touched for the very first time. Like a vir-ir-ir-ir-gin, with your heartbeat, next to mine. "It wasn't as hard as you'd think," he says.

He finally enrolled at Miami in the fall of '96, and was national champion in the one-meter board as a freshman. "I never expected to dive again," he says. "All this is more than I could have imagined."

This year's event, dominated by a senior-led Stanford team that won the Cardinal's eighth national title, was made special by the sagas of several swimmers who, like Ramirez, could not have imagined being here just five years ago. Back then, Ryk Neethling, Arizona's Dolph Lundgren look-alike who set an Auburn pool record by winning the 500-yard freestyle in 4:13.42, was unable to compete against top swimmers because of international sanctions against his homeland of South Africa, and before Nelson Mandela was elected president, Neethling had no hope of accepting a scholarship at an American university. His father, also named Ryk, took an 18-hour flight from Johannesburg so he could be in the stands to watch his son swim.

Lenny Krayzelburg, Southern Cal's backstroke star, also traveled a long road to end up in a pool in Alabama. Eight years ago Lenny's father, Oleg Krayzelburg, emigrated with his family from the Soviet Union to California. Like Ramirez, the Krayzelburgs didn't leave home for swimming but for freedom. "My parents didn't want me and my sister growing up without choices," says Lenny, who became a U.S. citizen three years ago. Now, after taking home the silver in the 100-and 200-yard backstrokes, he and Texas senior Neil Walker are America's top two backstrokers.

Although Ramirez has now been in the U.S. for five years, his thoughts turn frequently to Cuba, where his parents and two older brothers eagerly await his bimonthly phone calls. He was hounded by questions from friends and teammates two weeks ago when four Cuban baseball players escaped on a raft. Would he have gone that far? Is getting out of Cuba really worth risking death? "You grow up in America, you take freedom for granted," he said. "But in Cuba it's terrible. Everybody there has dreams, everybody wants a different life. If you have a dream, and there's a chance to do something about it, you have to do it. If a person doesn't, what's he left with?"