Once a Cuban Hero, Roberto Urrutia Aims to Give the U.S.A Boost—and Castro a Lesson—in the Pan American Games
08/10/1987 at 01:00 AM EDT
Noemi Urrutia, 57, has not seen her youngest son in seven years. She has only a photograph, hanging on the wall of her home in Havana, to remind her of what he was at 19. He is wearing a suit and tie and he is shaking a finger in the face of a bearded man in army fatigues, as if lecturing him. The bearded man is shaking a finger in his face too.
"I was never scared of nobody," recalls Roberto (Tony) Urrutia, 29, who now lives in Hollywood, Fla. "Fidel was telling me I should have done better in a competition. I was telling him he didn't know nothing about my sport."
Urrutia's sport is weightlifting, and at one time he was the best in the world in his 165-lb. class. A national hero in Cuba, he won a bronze medal at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal and three consecutive gold medals for his country at the world weightlifting championships in '77, '78 and '79. Then, in the summer of 1980, while training in Mexico City for the Moscow Olympics, Urrutia knotted a bed sheet to a window latch in his fifth-floor hotel room and tossed the sheet out of the window. He climbed down to the street, ran to the U.S. Embassy and pleaded for political asylum. The guards refused him entry, so he ran around to the side of the building, scaled the fence and went inside. He told the receptionist who he was, and said, "I want protection. I want the Marines."
His arrival at the embassy was the start of an improbable odyssey that seemed unlikely to end in success. Only seven years ago, when he was trying to start over in the U.S., he was broke and homeless and in the worst physical shape of his life. Despite the odds, Urrutia has waged an extraordinary comeback. When the Pan American Games convene in Indianapolis this week, he will be competing again, this time as a member of the United States weightlifting team. Now a U.S. citizen, he will also, for the first time since his defection, be matched against Cuban athletes. He says there will be no time for sentiment. "I am an American now," he says. "I want to be a national hero in America."
If succeeding in the face of enormous adversity is the standard by which heroes are judged, Urrutia is well on his way. Two days after defecting he signed the appropriate papers and was shuttled by embassy officials to Laredo, Texas, where he was given $500 and an alien card. With that money, he bought an airline ticket to Miami, mostly because of its large Cuban population. But once there, Urrutia (pronounced yur-OOT-ia) wound up sleeping in an abandoned car, unable to prove his identity to people who were doubtful that he was, indeed, the Cuban champion. He had no money, no family, no friends, and he couldn't speak English. He might still be sleeping in that car had word of his plight not reached Rafael Guerrero, now a Fort Lauderdale gym owner. Before he too had fled to America, Guerrero had been one of the leaders of the Cuban weightlifting program under Castro. Now he took Urrutia into his home and introduced him to Murray Levin, president of the U.S. Weightlifting Federation. The two of them helped Urrutia find work.
Urrutia spent the next four years in a succession of menial jobs. He was a clerk at a convenience store until he was held up at gunpoint. He was a bouncer at a disco. He was a stock boy at a supermarket, wearing a white apron and carrying bags of groceries to housewives' cars. They would tip him a quarter, then slip quickly into their cars and lock the doors. He was a beefy, threatening-looking man with a smile like a scowl.
But he did not touch a weight for several years, and it showed. A chunky 5'6", he ballooned from 165 to 210 lbs., and his waist size went from 28 inches to 36. "I said to my wife, 'I have to lose weight. I feel like I can't breathe,' " recalls Urrutia.
His incentive came on the day he became an American citizen. It was July 3, 1986, and his citizenship meant that he was eligible to compete for his new country in international events. It was then that he decided to begin training for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. He stood in his new suit in the Orange Bowl with 14,183 other new citizens and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. He waved a tiny American flag and sang God Bless America with tears in his eyes. There were other Cubans there that day and, remembering him as a national hero, some of them mustered the courage to approach him and congratulate him on his U.S. citizenship. They showed him such respect that Urrutia's American-born wife, Laura, 29, who was seeing it for the first time, was stunned.
In Cuba, Urrutia's early success had guaranteed him the good life. He had come from a poor family (his dad worked on a sugarcane plantation) and began lifting weights when he was only 12. "I was a skinny little kid," he remembers. "A bad boy. I was always fighting kids who picked on me. I practiced judo when I was in the fourth grade, and then I went to a gym to get big muscles." At first he wanted to be a bodybuilder, but such a self-indulgent pastime was frowned on in Communist Cuba. Instead his trainer steered him toward weightlifting. Within six months he went from lifting 90 pounds to 114, and then to 123. He entered his first competition at 14, and two years later was the Cuban national champion in the 132-lb. class. "I never wanted to be a hero," says Urrutia. "It just happened. I was 16 when I won the national championship. Suddenly everybody wanted to meet me and my 'beautiful family.' Before that, the athletic committee in Cuba say black people can't lift weights because their muscles have no elasticity. After I won, they sent me to a special school with other weightlifters. I had three coaches, and when I did good, they treated me good. When I did bad, they treated me bad. Too much pressure. You are nothing in Cuba if you lose."
By the age of 21 he had been showered with lavish gifts by the Cuban government: They helped him buy a house overlooking the Atlantic and gave him the money to purchase clothes and a sports car. Children and young women followed him on the streets of Havana, calling out his name as if he were a god.
Then one day he saw the future, and it stunned him. "I went to a friend's house who was a fencer but wasn't a champion," he recalls. "I told him I was hungry and wanted to fix some eggs. He told me he hadn't seen an egg in months. He had no shoes on his feet. It bothered me. I knew once I wasn't a champion anymore, they wouldn't care about me. That's why I defected." At the time he had been virtually undefeated in six years of international competition and was favored to win a gold medal in Moscow. "Now I am a traitor in Cuba," he says. "They throw eggs at my mother's house."
In the backyard of his father-in-law's modest home in Hollywood, Fla., Urrutia is preparing to lift 303 pounds off the makeshift platform he has built. Glistening with sweat, he rubs baby oil onto his thighs, then coats his hands with chalk dust. He seizes the bar with both hands and tries to hoist it to his shoulders. He totters and drops the bar with a loud clank. "You all right, Dad?" asks Laura. He nods. "One neighbor complains about the noise," she explains. "Once he called the police."
Laura sits on a bench, holding the Urrutias' infant son, Anthony. She met her husband when he was working as a bouncer. He thought she looked classy because she wasn't wearing jeans like the other girls. He called out to her, "Hey, momma, you're looking good."
At first Laura was frightened of this glowering man who spoke to her in accented English. "I wasn't attracted to him right away," says Laura. "Tony scares you. But when I got to know him I saw that he was a sincere, caring person." They were married in 1983 and now live with her father, Joe DiFruscio, a retired postal carrier, waiting for the day when, as Laura puts it, "we get on our feet."
Urrutia earns $12,000 a year driving a truck for the Publix supermarket chain, which is less draining than his old checkout job and spares him the energy his training requires. He works out up to five hours a day in his backyard, in a car wash where he once worked, in Murray Levin's garage and in various South Florida gyms. With a lift of 402 pounds, he has already equaled the U.S. record in his weight class for the clean and jerk, one of two Olympic lifts, and has managed a 313.5-pound lift in the snatch. He feels he must lift 315 in the snatch and 415 in the clean and jerk to win medals in Indianapolis and Seoul.
Levin believes Urrutia can become one of the sport's dominant figures once more. "Normally when a lifter is away from his sport for four years, it's impossible for him to come back," he says. "But Tony is different from anyone I've ever had. He's got so much desire. He can beat anyone in his class in this country already. I look at some of the top lifters who have access to the best training facilities, and those athletes are going downhill. I look at Tony and think, 'What could this boy do if he had the right facility?' He has all these hardships, and yet he keeps rising above them."
Dripping sweat, Urrutia pauses. "I had everything in Cuba. And now I am training for the Olympic games in my backyard." He shakes his head. "But that's all right. In America you have to work for yourself. I am happy, mucho, mucho happy. I have my freedom, my job, my family, and now I want to have my sport again." He smiles and makes a sweeping gesture with his arm, as if to encompass not only his backyard, his city and state, but all of his new country at once. "Here," he says, "I have nothing but opportunity." He bends over and grabs the bar once again.