Sunday, June 23, 2002

Perez adds another triumphant chapter to a remarkable story

AP Sports Writer

        STANFORD, Calif. — Yuliana Perez added another chapter to her remarkable story Saturday with a national championship in the triple jump.

        Just 20 years old, she already is threatening the American record, and someday could bring the United States a gold medal in an event long dominated by Europeans.

        “Each time I'm getting stronger and quicker. I'm ready to go to the Olympics,” Perez said. “I'm looking forward to it. That's my goal. That's my dream. I'm going to do whatever it takes to make it through.”

        Perez didn't just win at the U.S. Outdoor Track and Field Championships. She dominated with the four best marks of the competition. Her top jump was 46-7 1/4.

        She won even though the runway was unfamiliar because the jump-off board was 34 feet from the pit. She usually sets at 42 feet.

        “She had to adjust everything,” coach John Radspinner said. “That makes what she did even more amazing.”

        The victory earned Perez a trip to the World Cup in Spain. She has her sights on Sheila Hudson's American record of 47-3 1/2.

        Perez's story seems almost too incredible to be true.

        She was born in Tucson, Ariz., to Cuban parents, and her mother was shot to death in San Diego when Perez was just three.

        Her father was among the criminal and mentally unstable people deported by Fidel Castro to the United States twenty years ago in a so-called humanitarian gesture. She has never met him, and has no desire to do so. She told reporters Friday that he died when she was young.

        At age 5, Perez was sent to Cuba to be raised by her paternal grandmother, and became a young track and field star, making the national team. But she was booted from the team after refusing to renounce her U.S. citizenship. She was told she was too much of a risk to defect.

        In 2000, Perez left Cuba with a loan from the Swiss Embassy and went to Tucson, where she got a job as a waitress. One day, she got aboard the wrong bus and fell asleep. When she woke up, the bus was parked. The driver spoke Spanish and was a neighbor of the assistant track coach at Pima Community College.

        Radspinner met her and said she could work out with the team. When he found she was born in Tucson, she was given a scholarship.

        The city of Tucson virtually adopted her.

        The Conquistadors, the service club that operates the Tucson Open golf tournament, paid her way to international meets last year and paid off the Swiss loan to clear the way for Perez to travel abroad. A dentist repaired her teeth for free. She considers three women her “new mothers,” — one who took her into her home, one who runs an investment company where she works part-time, and one who is her academic adviser.

        One of them lent her a red, white and blue bracelet to wear on Saturday. She thanked “my home city” when she was interviewed in front of the crowd at Stanford's Cobb Stadium.

        “The people of Tucson love me,” Perez said later.

        She credits her success to hard work and a positive attitude, no matter what happens.

        Her two younger brothers still live in Cuba. She hasn't spoken to them since she left the country. Will they hear of her victory on Saturday?

        “They might,” she said.

        And wouldn't that be great?

        “Yeah,” she said with a giant smile.


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