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Fernando Dayan Jorge Enriquez, a champion sprint canoeist who fled his native Cuba two years ago, is feeling ill but is still getting up early to train for the Paris Olympics, where he will compete for a refugee team.

Jorge Enriquez won a gold medal in canoeing at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo together with his teammate Serguey Torres Madrigal.

At the age of 22, he reached the peak of a sport that he had begun learning at the age of eleven with his father in the Cuban city of Cienfuegos.

When Jorge Enriquez returned to Cuba, he was happy and proud, but also felt empty and wondered where he would find motivation after already winning Olympic gold.

Life in Cuba is hard – there are low wages and a shortage of food and other essential goods – and so he thinks long and hard about his future.

“We had six months of vacation and I lived like everyone else in Cuba. I was no longer in the sports bubble,” said Jorge Enriquez.

The communist government wanted his support and made him a smiling symbol of national triumph and pride.

Instead, Jorge Enriquez dismissed the regime as a farce. “So I deserted,” he said.

In March 2022, the Cuban canoe team traveled to Mexico City for a three-week training camp. Jorge Enriquez managed to cross the border into the United States, where he wanted to meet his wife.

Jorge Enriquez left the airport in Mexico City with a colleague whose name he did not want to reveal.

Then began the terrifying journey to the U.S. border, a 15-day ordeal during which they tried their best to remain unnoticed and avoid being kidnapped for ransom.

– Rescue on the Rio Grande –

The last obstacle was crossing the Rio Grande, although we were in a place where the water was dangerous.

They made it – just about – but had no time to celebrate.

As Jorge Enriquez stood on the U.S. side of the river, he heard the screams of a woman in distress.

“She was in the middle of the river, holding on to a rope and said she was going to let go, she couldn’t hold on any longer,” said the canoe champion.

“Her husband was behind her, but the current was so strong that he couldn’t reach her,” he added.

Jorge Enriquez decided to jump back into the water to save the woman. “I told her, ‘Come on, we can do it,'” he recalls.

After the rescue, Jorge Enriquez entered the United States as a hero for saving the life of a stranger.

But in the days that followed, he was treated like anyone else who entered the country without papers.

He was detained for two weeks and then released pending a hearing by immigration authorities on his asylum application.

Jorge Enriquez flew to Miami, where his wife was waiting for him at a cousin’s house.

Then came more hard times. He feared his parents would punish him for deserting Cuba. While training for his sport, he worked as a plumber and maintenance technician.

“I woke up at 4:00 a.m. to train, then went to work for eight hours and then returned home to train again,” said Jorge Enriquez.

– Olympic fate –

One morning in July, Jorge Enriquez was practicing sprints in one of the many canals that run through the city of Cape Coral in western Florida.

With his right knee in the boat and the other knee bent at a right angle, he shot through the water with powerful strokes of the oars, even though he was suffering from a cold.

Some neighbors have hung Olympic flags on the docks behind their homes to cheer him on.

Jorge Enriquez gritted his teeth as his coach Alain Nogueras followed him in a motorboat.

For both men, the Olympic Games in Paris seemed like a distant dream just a few months ago.

They met at a family reunion in Miami, where Nogueras offered to help Jorge Enriquez.

Then began the teamwork that made Jorge Enriquez one of the leading sprint canoeists in Florida and the entire United States, winning a bronze medal at the ICF Canoe Sprint World Cup.

In the meantime, the US authorities had approved his asylum application and he was able to bring his parents to Florida, where he trained for his return to the Olympic Games.

After a year of waiting, he received a letter from the International Olympic Committee informing him that his application to join the refugee Olympic team had been accepted.

“I was bursting with happiness,” said Jorge Enriquez. “I will represent this flag with so much pride.”

The refugee team first took part in the Rio Games in 2016 and also took part in the Tokyo Games. This time, 36 athletes from 11 countries will take part.

Looking to the future, Jorge Enriquez hopes to participate in the 2028 Games in Los Angeles – possibly as part of the US team.

“I have no barriers in my mind, especially after everything I’ve been through since I got here.”

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