APRIL 11, 2012

Have you ever met a Cuban or a Cuban American? If you have you probably agree with me, that  must of us like talking, telling stories and we tend to be very animated while telling them. This blog will try to keep this characteristics live. I invite you to support me on this new challenge of writing my stories along the journey towards making the US Paralympic Team that will compete in the 2012 London Games. Ileana Rodriguez

This is me!!!

Yes, I was born in Cuba, but more specifically in Matanzas; a waterfront city famous for its bay and art development. We take a lot of pride on this region because according to us “we have the best beach in the world, Varadero, there is no other place like it in the world”. Are we exaggerating when making this statement? Yes we are, but still, I agree, it is beautiful.

Growing up our options for entertainment was limited. We had no Nintendo nor TV shows but we had the best of all options, swimming.  We could swim in the bay every day and invent the most creative, sometimes dangerous, games. The huge rocks and some cliffs along the coast became very effective and unique diving boards. 

At the age of 7 I was selected to join City’s diving team, not for the skills acquired in the bay, but because I was short, skinny and flexible. I thought that was all I needed!! I never thought that not being afraid of heights was important as well. According to my mind, the three feet I was jumping from the rocks in the beach was more than enough to make turns and land perfectly. However, it wasn't long before my father made me realize that diving was not the sport I should pursue since I enjoyed being in the water more than doing flips in the air. Soon, I started swimming at our City’s swimming club. Swimming was great for two years until I decided that dancing was a lot more graceful than swimming. I moved on to do ballet at an art school, under a very strict system where I missed my swimming and the freedom of the water. I stopped dancing due to a malformation of my spine that developed when I was 13 years old and left me in a wheelchair as a consequence. This incident kept me from walking but allowed me to discover new possibilities, not only for myself but also for my family. My parents decided to leave Cuba and start a new life in the United States, looking for better opportunities for my two siblings and me. We chose Miami as our place of residence which soon became a  part of me and today consider home.

I finished my last two years of high school in Miami Palmetto Senior High where I was asked by a coach to join his swim team. Coming from Cuba with a language barrier (knowing very little English), and a very closed mind, I asked the coach, “Are you sure? I can’t walk.” His answer was simple, “ I am not asking you to walk, I am asking you to swim”. This was the first and probably one of the most important lessons I learned about living in the United States. There are no limits other than those you set for yourself. It was a year later when I had to start college at Florida International University to pursue my studies in Architecture. Swimming became secondary due to the demands of school and I decided to stop it, but never lost my passion for the water or trying to compete at a higher level. During my third year in college, I felt the need to go back to the pool but now with the big dream in mind, making the U.S. Paralympic Team. Ileana Rodriguez

Along this journey I have had great people willing to help me. One great example are two of my  coaches, Belinda Phillips and Andrew Phillips. They helped me to go back to the water and after eight months of training I had the qualifying times that would allow me to compete at trials for the 2008 Paralympic Games. 

I did not make the Paralympic team that year but I was encouraged to keep on training and this time even harder to be part of the next Paralympic Games. It was a great honor for me to compete at Trials. It set the beginning of a new path that took me to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs where today I train full-time together with eleven other athletes under coach Dave Denniston working towards making the 2012 Paralympic Team. I welcome you to join me on this journey towards London and accompany me through some of my experiences as an athlete.