Olympic dream drives Cuban judo standout

“It was very, very tough,” Leyen Zulueta said. “Sometimes I would get so frustrated, wondering if I made the right choice.”

Seven years later, the 30-year-old judo standout is at peace with her decision and hopes to represent the United States at the 2012 Olympics in London. She lives in Miamisburg with her husband, Felipe (who bought his freedom from the impoverished communist country “under the table,” Leyen said), and their 6-month-old son, Eliel.

It’s a busy life. Leyen works full-time as a teacher’s aide at the Miami Valley Child Development Center and trains with coach Russ Scherer and the Kettering Rec Center Judo Club several nights a week.

In January, she became a U.S. citizen: “You study 100 questions and they ask you 10. It was easy. But I studied a lot. I like to study.”

Leyen started competing in judo at age 9 and by 14 was traveling internationally with the Cuban national team. She often did well, winning a gold (1998), a bronze (2001) and a silver (2003) at the World Championships and earning silver at the 2001 World Cup.

In September 2003, while returning from a competition in Japan, Zulueta and a teammate bolted from the Cuban delegation during a layover in Mexico.

“We had to do it secretly,” Leyen said. “We didn’t tell anybody.”

She lived in South Florida for a year before moving here to train with a Springboro-based club and to immerse herself more completely in a new culture.

And last month in Miami, in her first international competition since leaving her homeland, Zulueta won a gold medal at the U.S. Open.

“Very encouraging,” Scherer said, declining credit. “I would almost say she’s self-coached.”

In her words

“I’m too busy. One day I got home and my baby was sleeping on the bed with my husband. I had to wake them up and say ‘hi’ to my baby. I felt like I had to make an excuse, so I said, ‘Let me breastfeed you.’

“I believe I have a lot of heart, which is important. The issue for me is I may not have enough people to train with. The club I’m with now, it’s mostly kids. I need to find ways to improve.

“Sometimes I have doubts. At the U.S. Open, I didn’t compete in my division, but in a heavier division, 78-plus kilos (about 170 pounds). Those are heavy people. It made me feel confident again. I’ve always been confident, but this was my first competition at this level in a long time.

“My second fight was with a girl who had won a bronze medal the day before in the World Championships. I didn’t know that until later, and (beating her) made me feel like I could do this.

“I wanted to train for the Olympics in 2008, but I was not a citizen back then. I had to get used to the culture. The language was very challenging, but it’s one of the reasons I wanted to move away from Miami, where everyone speaks Spanish.

“I get homesick sometimes, and the only way I can feel better about it is by calling and e-mailing my family. It gets expensive. My mom, dad, brother, sister, grandmother, grandfather — he just turned 100 — are all back in Cuba. I just wish I could go and see them again.

“Every Cuban who lives in this country, their hope is to go back and see their family. I’m hoping one day it will happen.”

Contact this reporter at (937) 225-2408 or smcclelland@DaytonDailyNews.com.