Ill-equipped and underfunded, Cuban rower sets his sights on Olympic gold

Ángel Fournier Rodriguez is currently training for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. He lives in the outskirts of Havana, Cuba.
Photo by Riley Robinson

Story by Alejandro Serrano ·

HAVANA, Cuba – Ángel Fournier Rodriguez sits motionless for a moment, pearls of sweat slipping down his face the only signal that this world champion, this pillar of muscle and stamina and grit, was moments ago, for a solid hour, in the throes of raw kinetic energy at the velocity of 1 minute and 56.2 seconds per 500 meters.

A three-time world champion, there is one thing Rodriguez doesn’t have: Olympic gold.
Photo by Riley Robinson

Rodriguez, who is 220 pounds and nearly 6 feet, 6 inches tall — a virtual giant by Cuban standards — is catching his breath for a bit atop his Concept 2 ergometer rowing machine. But the rest won’t last long, because Rodriguez has a plan on this recent Wednesday morning, one he’s been working on since he was 17, when he made the island’s pre-national team, and since 2014, when he took bronze in the world championships, and since 2017 when he took silver in the same competition.

Rest isn’t possible for this 30-year old because despite the out-of-date shell he’s forced to use, despite a graveyard of rusted racks all around him filled with old Chinese, Italian and American boats, Rodriguez has carved his way to the status as one of Latin America’s best rowers ever. No rest, because he has already set his course for 2020 Olympic gold.

“My dream is to have an Olympic medal,” he says. “Any. Being first would be best, but any of the three … and I am training for that.”

Rodriguez almost realized his dream at the 2016 Olympic games in Rio when he finished in last place of the main final. Making the “A” heat was important to him, he says, even after winning 1st place of the “B” finals in the 2012 games in London. Time and time again, Rodriguez has proved he is a top medal contender for 2020, according to Eduardo Palomo Pacas, the president of El Salvador’s Olympic Committee who met Rodriguez right before the London Olympics.

“If you look at the top 10 rowers in the world in single sculling, you have to throw in Angel,” Pacas says. “Right now,” as of May, “he is in the top three.”

Top three in a sport that, for most, requires constant training and the newest technology to compete with the other world’s best, such as Croatia’s Damir Martin, New Zealand’s Robert Manson and the Czech Republic’s Ondrej Synek.

But unlike those elites, Rodriguez, who benefits from a handful of personal trainers and nutritionists on the Cuba national team, is in a country where even basic necessities can be nearly impossible to find. Like many others here, though, he makes do with what he does have.

“They aren’t first-world boats, but they work for training and rolling out the sport,” he says of the gear he has.

The boy who always stood out

Nancy Rodriguez’s eyes follow her son’s every move as he strides in and out of a small but comfortable living room in his humble house on the outskirts of Havana. She has come to Rodriguez’s, in the borough of La Lisa, a 16-hour car ride away from her own home in Guantanamo, even though early May is the rainy season and it’s sometimes dangerous to travel across the island.

It is from here, in a rocking chair and against the clatter of buses roaring up the nearby pocked street, that she tells the story of an hours-old baby boy she knew would one day tower over everyone else because, at 12.5 pounds, he was sent home from the hospital with no cradle big enough to hold him.

And so it went throughout early life for a boy who always stood out, especially in sports – baseball, basketball, swimming. “Every day he was into a distinct sport,” Nancy says. Until at 12 years old, a coach from the local crew club suggested he give rowing a chance, and everything shifted. His focus would soon became singular — his training.

Rodriguez started practicing at a rowing club in Caimanera – nearly 14 miles away from his school at the time. “I would leave everything ready so that he could get out of rowing practice, then go running to catch a train to go study,” Nancy says. He thought of it as a hobby at first and then he won a bronze medal in a double boat at a national championship regatta for junior rowers in the 2003 season.

“Once I got into the national team, things took a more serious form,” says Rodriguez. “I started competing internationally. I started doing training camps. I was thinking differently – growing. I had bigger commitments.”

Rodriguez made Cuba’s pre-national crew at 17 years old and the winning titles started to pile up. Two gold medals – one with an eight-man boat and one alone – at a Spanish competition in Mexico, according to EcuRed, an unofficial Cuban database. Another two at Juegos Deportivos del ALBA, a Latin American competition. Then he qualified for the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing as a 20-year-old.

He ticks off his regattas like a grocery list, five, then 10, all mental badges of honor while only a couple of the tangible ones hang on the honey-mustard-colored walls of the living room, in between pictures of family.

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Rodriguez poses with his wife Yusmari , and his daughter, Natalia, at their home. Photo by Sofia Bergmann

For Rodriguez, who on this late, hot breezy afternoon walks around his house in camouflaged-colored flip flops, khaki shorts and a tank, the racing fulfills his competitive nature, his need to work hard and win. The tradeoff to traveling around the world for regattas, which he says he also enjoys, is leaving his family for weeks at a time.

Suddenly, his 1-year-old daughter Natalia is in view, toddling toward him, and a smile takes over his face. So far, she’s his only child with wife Yusmari Mengana, 24 years old, a world champion Cuban kayaker and former member of the Cuban national team.

“When you are in Europe for a long time, you miss the family, your daughter,” he says.

It’s so painful that Mengana will sometimes hide Natalia when he’s leaving, so he can’t hear her cry and she doesn’t have to watch him go. In a country where even professional athletes must live by the socialist ideal, which means making an average salary of about $30 a month with increases dependent on wins, life can be especially difficult in the shadow of a world champion who is either out of the country or out of the house training, she says.

But Mengana – who is reserved but genuine as she talks about her joy in making Rodriguez’s favorite meal (ribs), her awe in his sincere and humble personality and the pride she feels in his pure and fierce athleticism – copes. Anything to support a man who gives her, and everyone around him, hope.

“Sometimes,” she says, “I look at him, and I say, ‘I wish I can one day be like you.’”

A life of training

When Rodriguez is not spending time with his mother, wife and daughter, he’s at the rowing complex, just outside Havana, where he and 120 other members of the country’s rowing and kayak teams train.

He works out between 18 and 20 times a week for six hours a day. He is required to stay at his training center, which is a just over a 20-minute cab ride from his house, on Mondays through Wednesday mornings and Thursdays through Saturdays.

Rodriguez once had a car – a white 2009 Chinese Geely sedan – given to him in 2015 by a Cuban sports agency for his performance at the 2013 and 2014 world championships – that made it easier for him to get around. But he traded it for the yellow house he now lives in with his family so he has to walk or use a taxi.

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Rodriguez rowing on a recent morning inside the boathouse where he stores his hull. Heavy rain earlier in the morning kept him from rowing on the lake. Photo by Riley Robinson

Every morning, he rows for an hour, either at the Escuela Nacional de Remo y Canotaje sport club’s nearly 2-mile-long lake, or on his erg. He uses an assortment of workouts – swimming, lifting, running – to zero in on what his coach wants to train, such as technique or balancing the boat. Of course, he also has to carve out time to eat enough calories – fish, low-fat grilled steak, pasta, salad, gallons of juice and water – to round out his training.

His most recent win before this season, the 2017 Worlds, illustrates how his difficult training schedule has paid off. By the 500-meter mark of the championships in Sarasota, Florida, last fall, Rodriguez was in second place behind Czech rower Ondrej Synek. Broad and lean, both men knifed their stroke rates at around 34 per minute.

Rodriguez led Synek by less than a meter at the halfway mark of the race.

Synek’s strokes soon got longer and he started making a move on Rodriguez. Eight meters ahead. Eleven meters ahead. Thirteen meters ahead. The buoys turned red, marking the last couple hundred meters, and Synek took first place with a 6:40.64 finish. Rodriguez followed, earning his second silver world medal at 6:43.49.

Months later, Rodriguez recalls the first thing he thought about that day as he crossed the finish line. It’s always the same: Did I place? “It’s hard at times … it’s not about being a champion. It is about staying a champion,” he says. “You have to duplicate your training, you have to push yourself more to maintain the status you have in the world.”

Making do as a world champion 

Athletes in Cuba are like any other Cuban. No glitzy houses, or a garage full of cars, or pools or jewelry. They pick up their monthly rations of rice and beans and sugar and chicken or fish, just like everyone else.

Yunior Perez, a Cuban rower-turned-coach who made the finals at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, points to numerous items Cuban rowers lack at the most basic level of the sport: watches that record their speed and stroke rate – necessary for an athlete to compete against his own diagnostics; ergs; oars.

“It’s a bit complicated because it is very, very expensive,” he says. Some boats aren’t entirely outfitted with functioning seats, Perez says. And the lake the team rows on doesn’t have any meter markers, so athletes often don’t row in marked lanes until they compete.

Rodriguez, as affable as he is, isn’t oblivious to such obstacles. “It affects a lot,” he says. “If you trained on the same boat you compete on, you would do better.”

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The lake where Rodriguez and the rest of the Cuban national rowing and kayaking teams practice. Photo by Riley Robinson

In fact, he trains on a white 2011 Filippi sculling boat that has a spot reserved for him on the first rack on the left wall of the boathouse. He uses Filippi boats at regattas abroad because, he says, they are consistent, but they are not the same as the one he has here. “When you go to Europe or somewhere, you need two weeks to adjust,” he says.

But that’s just the equipment. The bureaucracy in traveling outside Cuba is almost always unpredictable and has often ended up thwarting Rodriguez’s ability to complete.

This is particularly difficult now because of President Donald J. Trump’s reversal of the travel leniency President Barack Obama installed in his last years in the in office.

Now, obtaining a visa to travel to the Unites States for regattas is nearly impossible. Because the U.S. embassy is almost empty of staff, Cubans have to travel to another country to apply for an American visa. Rodriguez, for instance, says he had to go to Mexico last year to obtain his visa for the world championships. He’s missed a number of regattas in the past, including the Head of the Charles in Boston, because of visa issues. “It’s a complicated topic,” he says.

Chasing a dream

Back in the boathouse, Rodriguez soon passes the one-hour mark of his workout but keeps rowing, at a slower rate. Eventually he stops, picks up a set of keys and starts walking toward the sunlight. He pauses and checks out his boat, slides out of his wet shirt, pulls closed the boathouse’s rust-red door and locks it.

After a long morning and a hard workout, he’s finally ready to sit with a beer and contemplate his place in the rowing world. He asks friends if there is anywhere that has Cristal, a domestic brew, while he waits for a cab to drive him home.

“We who are from the provinces have to make our lives here” at the complex, he says after a shower, waiting for his ride. In fewer than 24 hours, he will be back and not allowed to leave again for another three days. A pause, and then: “Your whole life goes away.”

The sacrifice of no longer seeing friends and family who are still in his native Guantanamo is just another part of his journey to an Olympic medal. He says he is used to it, but he still misses people. In less than a year, though, he will start racing to qualify for the 2020 Olympics, inching him closer to his dream.

“I tell you what. Yes. He does have a chance,” Pacas says from El Salvador about Rodriguez placing in Tokyo. “He has proven it.”

Looking ahead, Rodriguez says he doesn’t have any immediate plans but to keep training. If he wins an Olympic medal though, he might hang up his oars and coach, which he trained to do as a student at La Universidad de las Ciencias de la Cultura Física y el Deporte “Manuel Fajardo,” a sports college in Havana, from which he graduated in 2012 with a concentration in rowing.

Even without the coaching title, he’s already mentoring his teammates, taking care of his friends. That, he doesn’t have to learn on a boat, or in class. That’s the man he already is.

“If I need something and he has it, he gives it to me,” says teammate Xavier Vicet Campos, who keeps a clip of Rodriguez’s win in Florida on his white Samsung phone. “He is like my guide – my dad,” Máximo Arango Acosta, another teammate, adds. “He tells us to work hard and get to his level of results.”

For now, even with the autographs he is asked for, the crowds of people who gather at his mother’s place when he goes home to Guantanamo, the appearances on TV and the friends and family who cheer him all over the island, Rodriguez says he still enjoys rowing for simple reasons.

“I already spent so many years doing it,” he says, tired but happy to be on his way home to Mengana and Natalia, “and it gives me the opportunity to travel and compete.”

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2 thoughts on “Ill-equipped and underfunded, Cuban rower sets his sights on Olympic gold

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  1. Nice story and photos Alejandro and Sophia. It’s unusual to read about a world-class athlete who has to choose between housing and transportation. I’ll try to remember this story when the 2020 Olympics roll around. The international reporters might be using this as a template for their features. I like the detail his mom gave about there not be any cradles large enough when he was leaving the hospital shortly after birth.

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