Cars drive through the streets on March 26, 2012 in Havana, Cuba.
It could be a trip of a lifetime.
Not too long ago, it was a trip that wouldn’t have been on the radar for USA Triathlon.
A group of 27 U.S. athletes will get a shot to compete in the La Habana Triathlon in La Habana, Cuba, on Jan. 24-25. Also joining the athletes will be coach Jarrod Evans and USA Triathlon Board of Directors President Barry Siff.
It marks the first time a U.S. triathlon group has legally traveled to Cuba and been able to compete in a race. The International Triathlon Union (ITU), the sport’s international governing body, sanctioned a Continental Cup in Cuba in 2006, but no Americans participated in the event.
“We’ve all been looking forward to it and excited since we found out we’d be able to get entered into the race,” U.S. triathlete Kirsten Kasper said.
With the recent news of the United States and Cuba seeking to normalize relations, it’s a big step for USA Triathlon to compete in Cuba. Only a small number of athletes have been able to compete in Cuba since the United States set an embargo against the country in 1962.
“I think this is huge,” said Siff, who played a major role in obtaining the necessary license to have Americans travel and compete in Cuba. “I think what it does quite frankly is it will help the sport of triathlon in Cuba, and I’m excited about that. One of our commitments as a federation is to help grow the sport internationally. I think this will be really, really big for Cuba and for all of our Latin American countries.”
Siff first became aware of the La Habana Triathlon, which is ITU sanctioned, at the beginning of June 2014 when he spoke with a Cuban triathlon official at the Pan American Triathlon Congress and Best Practices Symposium in Dallas. Later in the fall, Siff looked into the event further and decided to get help trying to obtain the license to get the athletes into Cuba for the competition. He contacted Karen Irish, the associate director of government relations with the United States Olympic Committee, who helped fill out and submit the appropriate paperwork. The process was supposed to take up to three months to secure the license, and Siff thought he might run out of time to get registered for the event.
While awaiting license approval, Siff posted on his personal Facebook page about the event to see if any athletes would want to compete in Cuba.
“I didn’t know if anybody but me would be interested,” Siff said. “Lots of people responded and were really excited about it. So I pursued the licensing process with Karen, and incredibly we got the license the day after Obama announced the easing of relations.”
Once USA Triathlon got approval for the license on Dec. 18, Siff made the announcement in the organization’s newsletter. The open spots were filled within 24 hours.
When Rebeccah Wassner found out she could sign up for the Cuban race, the professional triathlete jumped at the chance.
“It’s always exciting to compete in a new country,” Wassner said. “Through triathlons, I’ve gotten to go to so many unique countries. This is probably going to be the most adventurous one, because it’s an unknown.”
The license, which is through the U.S. Department of Treasury, allows USA Triathlon to bring up to 30 athletes to participate in the event. The athletes aren’t able to bring spouses, family members or guests, and they are only allowed to be in Cuba from Jan. 21-26.
“It’s really to go there and compete,” Siff said. “We had to actually write out why we needed that many days. In other words, if you’re racing on Saturday, why do you need to come out three days early?”
The athletes will get to Cuba early to secure bikes and equipment for the race, since it’s difficult to transport gear for international events.
The triathlon will be a two-day competition. Eight U.S. athletes — including Kasper and Wassner — will compete in the sprint-distance Continental Cup race. The other 19 U.S. amateur athletes will compete in one of three other races on the weekend: sprint for amateurs, Olympic distance and long course.
“I’ve heard from many of our age-group athletes, and they’re just extremely excited for the experience,” Siff said. “They feel like it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. They can’t wait, and they have no illusions of competition. It’s definitely all about participation and experiencing Cuba and giving support to the Cuban athletic community.”
Siff said the athletes would be going to Cuba to compete but at the same time serve as ad hoc ambassadors for the United States.
“I think it’s exciting that we have the option to go now and do this and to have a good representation of the United States across the board in the age group and the ITU races,” said Kasper, 23, who is part of the USA Triathlon College Recruitment Program.
With 27 athletes competing, Siff noted that the United States would make up 8 to 10 percent of the field in the events.
“I think we’ll have a great presence, great exposure,” Siff said. “But our main goal is to spread the love, spread the passion for our sport.”
Siff believes this could be a sport-changing event.
“I think in the world of triathlon, we’re really putting a big foot forward in trying to again grow our sport internationally,” Siff said. “To witness that and to be part of it is super exciting for me.”
Greg Bates is a freelance writer based in Green Bay, Wisconsin, who has covered Green Bay Packers games for the past eight seasons. He has been a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc., since 2012.