Competiton, culture in Cuba

Competing in Cuba will allow athletes to expand cultural horizons and help fellow competitors. AP Images/Javier Galeano

Jessica Rossing has done about 50 triathlons since 2011. She's also represented the U.S. as an age-group athlete at the World Triathlon Championships in Beijing and London.

So traveling long distances to triathlon venues is nothing new for the 29-year-old personal trainer from Duluth, Minnesota. But never before has she been able to combine two of her biggest passions: triathlon and salsa dancing. Of course, she's also never before been to a race in Havana.

This weekend, Rossing will be one of 27 U.S. athletes competing in races in Havana, Cuba, as part of USA Triathlon's first trip to the island nation that has been off-limits for most Americans for 50-plus years. The triathletes are getting an opportunity they thought they'd never have.

"I'm really, really excited," Rossing said. "I have a few friends that are Cuban, so they've given me a little bit of insight, like, 'OK, here's some places to go, here's some places to eat in Havana, here's a place to go salsa dancing.'

"I've done a lot of salsa dancing the past few years. I'm excited to get down there and do that."

In the six days she'll be there, before and after her Saturday sprint race, she wants to "get totally immersed in the culture." So she and several other members of the USA Triathlon contingent will squeeze in walking trips through Old Havana, take an organized bike ride along the waterfront and distribute equipment they've brought to local triathletes.

Of course, the competition for the American athletes will be important. They'll be taking part in the International Triathlon Union's first sanctioned races in Cuba. For the eight elite athletes on the trip, the points that can be earned are crucial as they work toward earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic team for 2016.

But everybody on the trip knows, too, its larger significance. It's a chance to open doors to U.S.-Cuban competition and to grow the sport in Cuba. To Barry Siff, president of the USA Triathlon Board of Directors -- who put together this trip -- it's historic.

"Typically if these events are successful, they are annual events," he says of the Habana CAMTRI Triathlon. "We're bringing almost 30 people this year. I hope a lot more can go next year and participate. Based on what President Obama has initiated, I think it will be a lot easier next year than it was this year. And likewise, I think we'll have more Cuban athletes here."

Small part of bigger picture

Coincidentally, the contingent of American triathletes is arriving in Cuba the same week that U.S. representatives are meeting with Cuban officials in Havana about re-establishing diplomatic relations between the nations.

It all follows President Barack Obama's announcement Dec. 17 that the U.S. would take steps to normalize relations with Cuba and start to relax trade and travel restrictions. It's coincidental, because Siff first got the brainstorm to try to get USA Triathlon athletes to Cuba when he attended a June meeting of the Confederation of the Americas Triathlon (CAMTRI) organization in Dallas.

It was there he learned the ITU would hold its first event in Cuba.

"I thought that was cool, and I really liked the guy from Cuba, the head of their federation, even though he couldn't speak a word of English and I couldn't speak much Spanish," Siff said, laughing. "Yet we really hit it off, and I thought it would be really cool to go to the race and bring some Americans."

But that's not easy. Under the restrictions in place in 2014, Americans needed to apply to the U.S. government for a license to visit Cuba. The process can be lengthy, and Siff admits he didn't act as quickly as he should have.

Once he did take action, he says Karen Irish, the associate director of government relations with the U.S. Olympic Committee, helped him process his requests. USA Triathlon didn't receive approval to take a group of up to 30 to Cuba until about the same time the president made his December announcement.

That's when Siff announced via Facebook and USA Triathlon's weekly newsletter that any athletes interested in competing in Cuba could apply. He said the response "was huge," much bigger than he had imagined. Eventually, a group of 29 was set, selected on a first-come, first-served basis: 19 amateur age-group athletes and members of USA Triathlon along with eight elite-level triathletes, a coach and Siff.

The U.S. group will join athletes from about 20 nations in the two-day event in downtown Havana. Saturday will feature a sprint race (750-meter swim, 20K bike, 5K run) and middle-distance race (1.9K swim, 90K bike, 21K run). A long-distance (3.8K swim, 180K bike, 42K run) race will be Sunday.

American athletes have competed in Cuba, but it's been rare and the licensing process has made it difficult. Also, it hasn't been easy to travel from the U.S. to Cuba. Usually it requires going through Canada or Mexico, or taking a special charter from Miami. Siff will be on a Miami charter flight. The athletes arranged their own flights.

By this time next year, Siff expects everything to be easier. He says he's actually surprised this worked out. For a while, he thought maybe 2016 would be more realistic than 2015.

"Yeah, it's been challenging," he said. "But I think everybody sees it as an amazing opportunity."

"It's an honor"

Like Rossing, Kirsten Kasper would also like to see Havana's sights. But as a professional triathlete who'll be competing in the sprint-distance race, she's in a different situation. She and the other elite U.S. triathletes are hoping for podium finishes and the chance to begin their 2015 seasons by earning ITU points; they'll be needed to earn a spot on next year's Olympic team.

"Before the race, I'll probably just be focused on the race," she said. "But hopefully after we can explore and sightsee."

Kasper, who has a swimming background and ran track at Georgetown, is new to triathlon. She joined the USA Triathlon collegiate recruitment program in June. In August she finished fourth at the ITU Under-23 World Triathlon World Championships Grand Final in Edmonton.

The race in Cuba will be the start of what she hopes will be a strong development year. After Cuba, she'll race in New Zealand and Australia.

"Just having that opportunity to start racing right away [in January] and being able to go to Cuba is a very exciting way to start the season," said Kasper, who is from Marietta, Georgia, and is now training in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Siff says the age-group athletes will be in Havana much more for the experience and to be ambassadors. On a Facebook page set up before the trip, many of the athletes organized activities and talked about collecting equipment to take to Cuba to donate.

Rossing says they're bringing helmets, shoes, running shoes, jerseys and bike equipment of all kinds.

"They don't get a lot of opportunities to have newer equipment," she said of the Cuban triathletes.

So on Friday, the U.S. athletes are taking the equipment on a bike ride to a pool where young athletes will be training, to donate it. Because the race is so early in her season, Rossing says it's more for training and to see where she is in her fitness. The trip is really to "soak up the whole experience."

Says Rossing: "It's an honor to be a part of this historical moment as things are really going to start to change."