A great leap: Cuban defector and gymnast hopes to make 2012 games

Charlie Tamayo can do handsprings, handstands, full twisting double-back twists, giant swings, pike somersaults, flyaways and the Iron Cross. Anything a gymnast can do on a mat, uneven bar or from hanging rings, Tamayo can do and well enough to meet — even exceed — Olympic standards.

Tamayo, a 27-year-old Cuban defector who lives and coaches in Grand Junction, would like nothing more than to work his gymnastic legerdemain under the Stars and Stripes, but there’s one obstacle he’s been unable to vault: the federal government.

His bid for citizenship is stalled. Marching under the red, white and blue in Beijing probably is too much to ask, Tamayo conceded, but he maintains the 2012 Games in London are a realistic possibility, athletically speaking.

“I don’t want to take anybody’s spot,” Tamayo said. “All I’m asking is: Just give me a chance to prove myself.”

Politically and bureaucratically speaking, though, he so far might as well have had ground glass mixed into his chalk bucket.

Unable to prepare for the approaching games in China, Tamayo is making his living by coaching — and hoping he’ll catch the break he needs to return to the sport for which he was chosen at age 4.

Tamayo’s black T-shirt is splotched with plenty of chalk, a sure sign of a toiling gymnast as he works with aspiring gymnasts in a makeshift gym in a Grand Junction industrial area.

He scrambles up and down a pile of mats to adjust landing areas for his charges aged 4 to 19, catches them, straightens their legs as they wheel around the bar, shows how to use their arms and then does it all again.

“Better,” he said, cocking an appraising eye at Kayla Northrup, 19, working to hone her skills on the uneven bars.

That means more than it would from another coach, Northrup said.

“He’s been through it all,” she said. “He’s been at the highest level.”

“My other coach was way too easy,” said 9-year-old Carson King, awaiting her turn in line at the bars. “He let us goof off.”

Tamayo is a rarity as an outstanding athlete and coach, U.S. Olympian Morgan White wrote in a reference letter for him.

“His seeming natural ability to relate to young kids at camp was quite remarkable,” White wrote. “If you could spend one day watching Charlie work with these kids, I’m sure you would understand why his friends and co-workers think so highly of him.

“Not only is he a positive role model for these kids, but he would be a tremendous asset to this country,” White wrote.

The U.S. Gymnastics Team would benefit from Tamayo’s competition, said Michael Jacki, president of USA Gymnastics from 1983 to 1994 and a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee board of directors from 1983 to 1996.

“Let’s say Charlie wasn’t going to be in the top six” who go to the games, Jacki said. “He still raises the level of performance of the guys in the top six. They know what a great athlete he is. They have to work harder, train harder, perform better, and that raises the bar. His participation not only helps as a competitor, but it helps raise the standard that is set.”

Among people who know gymnastics and have seen Tamayo in action, Jacki said, “They’re seriously scratching their heads, asking, ‘Why isn’t this guy on our team?’ ”

The governing organization of the sport in the United States, USA Gymnastics, on Thursday issued a letter of support.

Tamayo “will make a great addition to our national gymnastics community and perhaps may still have an opportunity to try and compete to represent the United States” once he’s granted citizenship, wrote Ron Galimore, vice president of the organization.

Tamayo took the bronze medal in the vault in the 2001 World Championships — it was the first medal for a male Cuban athlete in that event — and he followed it up in 2003 with the gold medal in the same event at the World Cup in Germany.

For Tamayo, it was the completion of a promise he made to his mother that he would one day win a gold medal for her.

The following year, nursing a broken ankle, he qualified for the Olympic Games during the World Championships in Anaheim, Calif., but was told by his coach he wouldn’t be allowed to go.

That was the second time Tamayo had qualified for the Olympics.

That decision cemented an idea that Tamayo said he’d been working on for about a year: defecting to the United States.

“Devastated,” was how he described himself in a biographical thumbnail, adding, “I looked back on my life and realized how much sacrifice I had made for nothing.”

His teammate, Michel Brito, had defected a day earlier and called him while he was in his Anaheim hotel room and asked Tamayo whether he, too, wanted to defect.

”I looked around at where I was and understood that I was at the right place and at the right time to begin a brand new life,” Tamayo wrote. “A new life where the most important thing is freedom.”
Tamayo’s answer was yes.

Tamayo met Brito in a bar on Aug. 11, 2003, and the two left together with Brito’s uncle, who took them to his home in southern California.

After news broke of his defection, Tamayo said, he was surrounded by police officers, not a comforting development in his experience.

“Welcome to America,” he remembered a police officer telling him. “I wanted to let you know that we’ll protect you.”

Tamayo left behind all his belongings in his hotel room and surrendered any opportunity to see his mother and siblings again while the Castro regime is in power.

It soon dawned on him that he was suddenly responsible for himself, something he hadn’t ever been before.

He took a job in construction, and the day he was paid $500, “I felt like I was a millionaire,” he said.

He soon found his way into gymnastics circles and got a job coaching.

Don Eckert, director of gymnastics at Woodward West in California, took Tamayo on a tour of the western gymnastic circuit, including Grand Junction, and Tamayo was immediately taken with the Grand Valley, he said. Tamayo said he has made Grand Junction his home since arriving in town in August.

“For me, the snow is a big deal,” Tamayo said.

Grand Junction is a small town “that’s safe and good for raising families.”

Enjoying his new freedom, Tamayo said he’s still dogged by worries about the family he left behind, his mother and two brothers.

He had hoped to win his mother a house with his World Cup gold medal, but he was punished instead for his political views, he said.

“I started to see how hard my mother had to work to try and provide a decent life for my brothers and me,” he wrote. “It seemed as though no matter how hard I worked, there was nothing I could do to help her.”

He speaks occasionally with his family by telephone, but their conversations are limited because they fear that state officials are listening in, he said.

“I want a house for my mother,” he said. “That’s all.”

It wasn’t until he was in the United States that he fully understood how it was that Fidel Castro ran his native country, he said.

“It was shocking when I finally realized the truth about the history of my country,” he said.

Now he coaches in Grand Junction and Aspen and is pleased with the turns he has taken in life, he said, until he thinks about the Olympics.

It’s almost as though a hostile judge has taken over the decision-making in his immigration case.

Tamayo filed for asylum on Aug. 11, 2004, a year after his defection. It wasn’t until last February, however, that asylum was granted, a length of time that leaves his Grand Junction attorney, Luke Brennan, at a loss.

Under normal circumstances, meaning someone not from Cuba, there is a five-year period after the granting of asylum before an immigrant can seek permanent residence. Only after that can an immigrant seek citizenship. 

Cubans, however, can seek permanent residence after having been in the country for a year, and Tamayo’s paperwork for that was filed Aug. 11, 2004.

Brennan said he can find no record any action was taken on it, however.

“Legally, I’ve gone as far as I can go,” he said.

Even if Tamayo were to be issued his permanent residency today, time already is working against him for the 2012 Olympic Games.

He still would have to remain a permanent resident for four years before he could seek citizenship, a requirement to compete in the Olympics.

So, Tamayo, his girlfriend, Nicole Tamoush, who also is a gymnast, Brennan and Tamayo’s friends have pinned their hopes on Congress, which can order a change in Tamayo’s immigration status and clear the way for his international participation.

The early developments, however, have not been encouraging. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., refused to carry a measure.

Tamayo’s supporters are putting together requests to Colorado Sens. Wayne Allard, a Republican, and Ken Salazar, a Democrat, as well as Florida Republicans Sen. Mel Martinez, and U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart.

Salazar’s office has opened a file and is seeking information about Tamayo’s status.

Legislation that would give Tamayo the opportunity to compete for a spot on the men’s gymnastics team isn’t unique.

Congress acted in 2005 to make it possible for Canadian Tanith Belbin to gain U.S. citizenship in time to compete for her adopted country in the 2006 Winter Games in Turin.

In that case, Belbin was recognized as an “athlete of extraordinary ability,” and she won a silver medal at the games.

Kem Piccinati travels regularly between her home in Carbondale and Grand Junction for her 12-year-old daughter, Gracie, to practice gymnastics with Tamayo.

“People need to believe in something,” and Tamayo’s pursuit of U.S. citizenship is just the kind of inspiration that children need, Piccinati said.

She and a group of parents routinely trust their children’s health and lives to Tamayo as he teaches them how to tumble, jump, leap and spin, sometimes with just the strength of their fingers tethering them to safety.

Tamayo’s story is much like that, Piccinati said, adding, “Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing for kids to grab hold of?”


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