Former Olympian teaching courage through life story


by Aaron Reiss
Eagle Staff

In broken English and a thick Cuban accent, Alberto Rodriguez tells his story.

Rodriguez, a former Olympic wrestler for his native Cuba and current assistant wrestling coach, defected from Cuba after competing in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic games.

Since the country of Cuba does not have an extradition treaty with the United States, Rodriguez was able to escape the oppressive, communist regime in Cuba today that he had known all thirty-three years of his life prior to the Olympics.

“I was pretty disappointed with the way they was doing things over there [in Cuba],” Rodriguez said. “I knew that I didn’t want to come back.”

Thus, Rodriguez acted on his actions. Heading to Ohio after his run at the Olympics, not back to his native Cuba.

Nevertheless, Rodriguez openly admits that defecting from the communist regime was not easy.

When asked what the toughest thing was coming to the United States and leaving behind the life he had known for so long, his answer was simple: “Everything.”

“The language, the culture, everything,” Rodriguez said. “It was like a new life, it was like being born again, but I was born at thirty-three years old.”

But if there were one single thing that took a toll on him the most, Rodriguez says, it was being away from his family.

For the first three years that he lived in the United States, Rodriguez did so without being able to see his wife and their two children.

“To have to leave my family at that time, if I had to do it again, I wouldn’t do it,” Rodriguez said.

“If I had to do it again, I’d come back [to Cuba]. This is a wonderful country. There are so many opportunities, I have good friends here, but I am very close to my family, my mom, my brother, I am very close to my family.”

Rodriguez was reminded daily of what he left behind in Cuba in exchange for freedom.

He remembers distinctly the day that he saw his boss’ children while working in Ohio just a month after defecting.

“I started to cry and cry, the boss told me to wash your face and take a one hour break or whatever,” Rodriguez said. “It reminds me of how bad I was, how uncomfortable.”

“Never, never leave your children, your family behind. Never.”

Even once his wife and children came to the United States three years after the 1996 Olympics, Rodriguez continued to have challenges in his life, only this time they were self-inflicted.

“I always like to challenge myself,” Rodriguez said.

This desire is what brought Rodriguez to coaching wrestling, both at the collegiate and high school levels.

Hearing that the quality of wrestling in Texas was not on the same level as that which he coached in Ohio and then later in Michigan, Rodriguez willfully accepted the challenge to come to Texas and help change the wrestling culture of the state.

The move to Texas landed Rodriguez at Paradigm Training Center, where he connected with wrestling coach Gordon Oehmig and eventually brought Rodriguez to coaching at St. Thomas.

He has been an integral part of the Eagle wrestling team’s recent success.

“He is so knowledgeable, being in the Olympics and being a world champion, that he can answer any question we have for him,” senior captain Dominic Airola said.

Rodriguez realizes that the struggles are not all his, and that there are people in Cuba fighting and struggling against the same issues he did twenty-six years ago, which is why he still has hopes for the country that he once called home.