Back in 2003, when the U.S. hosted the world championships in gymnastics, three Cuban gymnasts used the competition as an opportunity to defect. Among them was Charles “Charlie” Tamayo, the first Cuban male gymnast to win a medal at the world championships. Now, more than a decade later, Tamayo, who was just hired as an assistant coach for the University of Georgia women’s gymnastics program, talked about his experience as a training as a young Cuban prodigy while on the GymCastic podcast.
Tamayo’s career in gymnastics started typically enough—his unique abilities were spotted when he was very young, just four years old, which is when he started practicing. Eventually, he moved to the training center where he was mentored by coach Felix Aguilera. “He changed my life,” Tamayo said of his former coach. Under Aguilera’s tutelage, Tamayo became the first Cuban man to win a world championship medal in 2001, and created a new skill on the floor exercise. (Annia Portuondo-Hatch became the first gymnast from Cuba to become a world medalist, winning a bronze medal on vault in 1996. Portuondo-Hatch left Cuba for the U.S., became an American citizen, and competed for the U.S. on the 2004 Olympic team. She won a silver with the team and an individual silver on the vault.)
Here are some clips of a young Tamayo training back at the national team training facility in Cuba.
And here he is doing a double back somersault from standing:
But while Tamayo was unreserved in his praise for his personal coach, he had a lot of criticism for the Cuban system in which he was raised. Specifically, the unequal treatment he encountered in the training center’s cafeteria.
“They started creating this division where it used to be three different places for people to eat. They got the one for coaches and all of the employees...and then they had a regular place that was for all athletes...and then they had this special place that was for the Pan Am champions [Pan-American Games champions], Pan-Am medalists, world championships guys, and Olympics and all of that.”
After renovations in 2000, according to Tamayo, another dining area was added: a restaurant that was reserved for only the most successful athletes.
“That restaurant was only for Olympians and world medalists, very exclusive,” he said. It was only after he became the first male gymnast to win a world championships medal for Cuba in 2001 that Tamayo was able to eat at the restaurant. His coach also earned the privilege to eat there. (Tamayo described the food that employees, including coaches, ate as “crap.”):
“I didn’t understand why if we live in a place where everybody is equal, why is it a difference between us as an athlete...Now I’m going to go to the restaurant and eat ice cream and take yogurt and drink milk when I wanted to and have three different types of meat and when I went to see my buddies, they were eating something totally disgusting. I was like, ‘How does that work?’”
Tamayo also spoke about thinking about what his parents were eating back home as he was enjoying the creme de la creme at the training center. Tamayo said he started storing the meat he was given during the week and then taking it home to his parents over the weekend.
Even if the tiered eating system that Tamayo described was intended to create incentives for harder work and better international results, certain structural realities would limit its ability to function that way. Tamayo talked about how their ability to travel and compete was subject to budgetary constraints. “We had no money,” he said. Tamayo noted that during his era, Eric Lopez, who was the Cuban gymnast, was sometimes the only one dispatched to a competition. “Sometimes you spent six, seven years not going anywhere,” he said. So even if a gymnast worked hard and showed significant promise, he or she might not get the chance to travel for competitions, and therefore might not gain entry into the exclusive athlete dining room. It was mostly reward, not incentive.
He also grew frustrated with having to turn his prize winnings over to the federation and government. Tamayo didn’t see a way to build a future for himself and his family after his athletic career was over. “I started seeing many, many Olympians who sell their Olympic medals because they have nothing,” he said.
“They give us a car for being Olympic champion but they don’t give us, like, gas,” he said. Tamayo also had to fight to get a cell phone so he could call home.
Tamayo said that his defection from Cuba to the U.S. in 2003 was definitely premeditated. He had decided before he traveled to compete to the world championships in Anaheim, but then he broke his ankle not long before the competition thought that his chance to compete (and defect) in Anaheim was gone.
He ended up traveling to Anaheim with the plan of only competing on the upper-body events at the competition. But then the head coach had him compete in all six men’s events—including lower-body intensive events like vault and floor exercise—on a broken ankle. After the competition, Tamayo said he was blamed for the team’s performance despite the fact that he was one of the Cuban squad’s highest scorers in the meet.
Tamayo was not the only Cuban gymnast to defect in Anaheim—two others, one male and one female gymnast—also left after that competition. The world championships in Anaheim would be Tamayo’s last meet. His competitive career ended while he was in his early 20s, still very much in his prime. On the podcast, he talked about having perfected a crazy vault that he had hoped to debut. It wouldn’t be competed until 2009, when North Korean Ri Se-gwang, the reigning Olympic champion on vault, did it and so the skill is named after him.
But Tamayo’s name is in the Code of Points, not for a vault, but for this ridiculous pass on the floor exercise.
When asked about this skill during the interview, Tamayo was quick to note that he was not actually the first to perform this skill. An older member of the Cuban national team had done it first but the the spoils—i.e. credit in the code—goes to the first gymnast to perform an element at major international competitions, so the laid-out arabian double front on floor is called the “Tamayo” in the men’s code. (In the women’s code, it’s named after Brazilian gymnast Daiane dos Santos, the 2003 world champion on floor, who first performed it in 2004.)
Tamayo continued training after his defection, hoping to eventually represent the U.S. in competition, like Portuondo-Hatch did, but wasn’t able to because he applied immediately for asylum instead of waiting a year and applying for relief under the Cuba Adjustment Act. This would’ve fast-tracked his green card. But instead, he was ineligible to compete in 2004 and 2008.
It’s a real shame that he never got the chance to compete, because he was just 22 when he defected and still had a lot of gymnastics left in him. There are many, many videos of him on YouTube doing insane skills in training. (I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone rotate in the air as quickly as Tamayo could.)
Despite giving up his career and his ability to see his family for awhile—his grandmother died before he had a chance to see her again—Tamayo doesn’t regret defecting in 2003. “It was definitely the most painful experience of my life but the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said.