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Reflecting on an adventurous swimming career and his new passion for water polo, we caught up with Rafael Polinario, 46, poolside at the University of Toronto in Toronto, Canada. In his twenties, Rafael was a swimming phenomenon and Cuban celebrity; he was Cuban National record holder in the 50, 100, 200, 400 and 1500 freestyle, and both Central American and Pan Am champion in the 100 and 200 freestyle. Now he is a veteran of the Toronto Triggerfish, an LGBT water polo team—and preparing for the team's annual LGBT PoloPalooza tournament at the end of April. We asked Rafael about his passion for the water, his defection from Cuba, and his athletic pursuits since his Olympic days.
How did you first get involved in swimming and launch such a successful swimming career?
Wow—I don't even remember learning to swim. All I know is what my mom told me afterwards—that she was asked to allow me to join a competitive swim team in my home town of Varadero, Cuba, at the age of five. It all grew from there. I was recruited for the Junior National training program at the age of 11. The program was different from here. We had to relocate to Havana to participate in the program. I was very young. Mom didn't want me to participate—it was quite the battle. I was too young to realize what was really happening; I was just having fun.
Describe the highlights of your early swimming career.
I swam mostly distance freestyle at a younger age, and then slowly swam shorter and shorter events. I made the Senior National team at age 14, and until I retired at age 22, [I] focused mostly on the 100 and 200 freestyle. Highlights for me were winning the Central American and the Pan Am Games—particularly in the 1982 Pan Am games in Cuba, where I took the gold in both the 100 and 200 freestyle in front of my country.
You went to the Olympics as well—I am curious why you don't mention that as a highlight of your career?
I was one of five Cuban swimmers who made the standards for the Olympics in 1980—which was exciting and an accomplishment in and of itself. However, because of the boycott of the Moscow Games, there was a lot of uncertainty politically. We didn't know if we would be participating in the Games as a country. Ultimately, Cuba ended up attending the Games—but because of the boycott, it wasn't a big deal. In the end, I placed eleventh in the 100 free. It was sad, actually, to work so hard for this challenge—and then to know that all the big names, the guys I wanted to swim against, would not be there—it was really disappointing.
What did you do after you retired from swimming?
I began to coach, which I really enjoyed, while finishing up my PhysEd degree. I ended up as a coach of the Cuban Junior and Senior National team. I knew I was gay since I was in diapers, but because of all the attention on me, being in the papers and on TV, I felt I had to act a certain way. I found a woman I really liked, Annie, and married her at the age of 20. We had a beautiful daughter, Anne, before we separated one and a half years later.
One day, I was approached by the head coach of the national swimming program. They stated that they discovered I was relating with anti-social, anti-communist groups, and homosexuals. They never claimed that I was gay—only that I was relating with others. I was told to resign my coaching job that I loved so much—and told I was never to coach in the country again.
I decided to complete my Masters degree in Hungary, and this was part of my plan to defect from Cuba, by claiming political asylum in Madrid on the way back to Cuba.
But you ended up in Canada?
Yes, it is a very strange story. I wanted to defect to Spain because it is a Spanish-speaking country. We were supposed to fly from Budapest to Madrid, and then Madrid to Havana. I didn't know it at the time, but Castro's brother was on the same plane as me! As a result, they rerouted the plane so that it would fly direct, with a refueling stop in Gander, Newfoundland, Canada. I was intent on defecting, and so right before we boarded the plane in Gander, I slipped aside and found an officer, claiming political asylum.
I thought I'd be able to get to Spain easily from there, but I was wrong. I was in limbo, and was unable to leave the country. Eventually, when they cleared my paperwork, I moved to St. John's, the capital city of Newfoundland, to attend an [English as a second language] school.
How completely different from ending up in Spain! What did you do in Newfoundland?
I ended up getting a job as a lifeguard, and eventually as a swim instructor and a coach. I was spotted one day swimming on my own, and asked by the coach of the Newfoundland Provincial swim team to swim with them. So, I ended up swimming in the Nationals for the Newfoundland team at the age of 26!
You eventually ended up moving to Toronto, where you got involved with gay sporting organizations. Tell me about that experience.
When I moved to Toronto, I started hearing about the gay swim team [Downtown Swim Club]. I eventually decided to give it a try, and really enjoyed it. I went to several of the gay meets, including Montreal's annual swim meet, and IGLA in Atlanta. Unfortunately at IGLA in Atlanta I was really sick, so I wasn't able to enjoy the atmosphere the way I would have liked.
When Toronto started a water polo team, I tried it a couple of times with my ex-partner. He didn't really enjoy it, so we did other things. A couple of years after, I was looking for a social sport. I had tried running, but water polo kept calling me. Joining the Toronto Triggerfish is one of the greatest things that has happened to me. I really enjoy the group. What I enjoy most is the different levels and abilities of the players—some are really talented, some can barely stay afloat, and yet everyone is enjoying themselves and playing hard! It's been a fun experience. I still don't have much of an idea what I am doing yet—and so I am learning like everyone else.
And you are keeping up your coaching?
Yes. When I was financially capable, I sponsored my daughter Anne to come and live with me. She is physically disabled, and now is a member of the Canadian Paralympic national team. I have coached Anne, along with other disabled swimmers, at Variety Village, a unique sport center in Toronto. I have now coached three swimmers with a disability to international level (Paralympics in Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney and Athens).
Who inspires you? Any athletes, gay or straight, who have served as inspiration? Anyone else, outside of sport?
In the sport I would have to say Elisabeth Walker, the first swimmer that swam under me with a disability that made it to her first Paralympic games in Barcelona when she was 14 years of age. Outside the sport, it would be my mother for her energy, spirit, strength, and patience throughout her life.
What's next for you?
Continue to enjoy today and tomorrow. I am very content with my life at this point.