By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - As Manuel Huerta strolled through the London Games athletes village on Thursday, the Cuban-born American glimpsed the face from the past that launched him on an unlikely Olympic journey.
Excited at his discovery, he introduced himself, then reached out to shake the man's hand.
"Hello", smiled Huerta.
But Rodolfo Falcon, Cuba's greatest swimmer of all-time, winner of the Communist island nation's only Olympic swimming silver medal, did not remember him.
"I approached him and told him I use to swim with him when I was a little kid," smiled Huerta, now a proud member of the U.S. triathlon team. "It was a quick thing, he didn't know me.
"But swimming in the same pool and watching him every morning and watching him on TV, I wanted to be one of those guys one day.
"That is where I started the dream, that I wanted to be here (in London), to be an Olympian.
"Now the opportunity has arrived for me in the United States."
Of all the immigrants who land on American shores Cubans are among those who feel they owe the most to the United States, a country that continues to impose sanctions on the Fidel Castro regime.
For Huerta, competing in London represents a down payment on a larger debt owed to the country that took in his grandmother, when she fled Cuba in a mass emigration in 1980 known as the Mariel boatlift.
In 1997, Huerta's mother and father obtained U.S. visas and along with 13-year-old Manny found a home in Miami but have hardly lived the American Dream.
His mother Marta, a physics professor in Havana found work as a driving instruction while his father Herminio, a Cuban journalist, took a job in Colombia before he died three-years ago.
"I was very lucky to come to the U.S., the U.S. has helped me and my family and millions of immigrants that come to this land with a dream so I can't thank them enough," said Huerta. "My family left everything behind for a better life.
By the time Huerta arrived in Miami the seeds of an Olympic dream Falcon had planted in Havana had firmly taken root.
A strong swimmer, who as a young boy would race out into the ocean to help fishermen with their catch in return for fish he would take home to his mom for dinner, Huerta's ability would eventually land him a spot at the National training centre.
It was at the pool each morning he would watch with awe as Falcon, a backstroker who competed in three-Olympics taking silver in the 100 meter back at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games, went through his training sessions.
When Huerta arrived in Miami, he continued to swim competing for his high school. Then one year he was recruited onto the cross-country team when they needed one more runner to take part in a meet.
It was not long after that until Huerta added cycling to his sporting repertoire and was racing triathlons.
Last year he was named USA triathlon athlete of year, dedicating himself to the sport.
In the buildup to London, Huerta split his time between his home near the Miami airport and a rustic farmhouse on an active Costa Rican volcano, where he goes to train at altitude.
But there is no splitting of Huerta's loyalties.
"I am 100 percent America but I remember where I came from, I think I'm very lucky to be born over there and come over here and succeed," said Huerta. "It opens the doors for many kids who come to this country with a dream.
(Editing by Nigel Hunt)
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