Meet the Elite Cuban Weightlifters Living and Training in America

Over the past year, I would argue that two of the most exciting weightlifters in the United States have been Yadier Nunez Quesada and Asniel Rodriguez Jimenez. Both are elite level, Cuban-born athletes who have been training at CrossFit 210 and living in San Antonio, Texas, since 2015. America has taken notice based on their exemplary results from the MIA Soul Classic in October of 2016, the American Open Championships in December, and most recently, their performance (first and third overall, respectively) at the Arnold Weightlifting Championships.

Prior to their debut this past fall, hardly anyone in the United States had any idea who these guys were. That’s because before 2015, both had been on the Cuban Weightlifting Federation’s National Team. Quesada won a silver medal at the 2015 Pan American Games in the 85KG category. Jimenez was the 2012 Junior Pan American Champion in the 105KG category. Both of these men were on the start list for the 2015 World Championships that happened in Houston, Texas.

However, like tens of thousands of Cubans annually, Quesada and Jimenez decided to immigrate to the USA. Unfortunately this was at the expense of actually competing at the World Championships. Thanks in part to what has been dubbed by major media outlets the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, an American immigration policy which recently concluded, most Cuban migrants who reach U.S. soil are allowed to stay and become legal permanent residents after one year.

Today they have no connection with the country of Cuba or the Weightlifting Federation other than family and friends they miss back in their home country. Their workout programs are written by Coach Steve Galvan, owner and Head Weightlifting Coach of 210 Weightlifting. From my conversations with them, it seems both enjoy being in America, and so far America and American weightlifting fans are enjoying their athletic abilities as well.

At the recent 210 Weightlifting March Madness Competition on March 11th in San Antonio, I was able talk more at length with both athletes, as well as Coach Galvan, who provided immense help with bridging the language barrier. Thanks in large part to a significant support group which includes their families, friends, and weightlifting community, both Quesada and Jimenez are residing in the country legally and are able to work and live their lives as they wish. They are currently working on obtaining US citizenship and have a strong desire to compete internationally for the United States.

While I am not an immigration lawyer, the normal process to obtain American citizenship is roughly five years in a best case scenario. The process itself can be slowed down based on establishing permanent residency, which can take more or less time based on extenuating circumstances that are different for everyone. Both men already had family living in the United States, which could help the process move along. That being said, there is a significant risk that they may not have citizenship in time to be considered eligible for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. Coach Galvan informed me that they are exploring all options towards citizenship and they remain hopeful that by 2019 they will have citizenship and help Team USA secure Olympic spots at the World Championships in that year.

How did they start weightlifting, and what are their goals?

Quesada, a native of Ciego de Ávila in central Cuba, started weightlifting when he was 13 years old. One day, a trainer came to his class in school and asked which students would be interested in weight training. A skinny Yadier raised his hand; “I thought it would be cool” he told me in reflection.

Jimenez, a native of Cienfuegos on the southern coast of Cuba, went to a specialized school for athletes in his hometown. This was designed for the best of the best athletes to attend. However, he was initially a volleyball player and he started training in Olympic Weightlifting to become better in that sport. Eventually he was doing so well in weightlifting that the volleyball coach told him to pursue weightlifting full time.

Both men are full of ambition and have set high goals for themselves in their weightlifting careers. When asked what their long-term goals are, they both replied the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo is at the top of the list. They want to continue to compete on an international level, but now for Team USA. They did not say it, but I could tell they are disappointed they were not able to lift on one of the biggest stages in weightlifting, at the 2015 World Championships, and that continues to fuel their passion for the sport.

What does their training consist of?

For lack of a better term, they both train under an “American” training plan where they train five times a week and go 90% or above about every 10-12 days. Their training programs are written by Coach Steve Galvan, just like every other weightlifter at their club.

Galvan informed me that initially they were hesitant to do anything differently than they had done in their prior lives as Cuban National team members. However in that capacity, their lives revolved around training. Here in the USA, training is only part of their day, and they also have to manage working and other obligations. So, like most coaches, Galvan monitors their training, and when he needs to push them more or ease up on their programs, he adjusts accordingly.  

My favorite part of the conversation was asking about their diet and eating habits. Both laughed at me and said they were working on improving their nutritional habits. Coach Galvan elaborated that this is a big part of the Cultural difference between the United States and Cuba. In the United States, if they are hungry, they eat. According to the athletes, in Cuba it is not always that easy. Both athletes eat three normal meals during the day and it is generally healthy foods. All three feel that there is a direct correlation between eating, which will help the overall recovery and should lead to improvements in their lifting results.

Speaking of Training, what are their best lifts?

Yadier Nunez Quesada – 77 KG

Snatch: 163KG (359 lb.) (*As an 85kg athlete)

Clean & Jerk: 201KG (442 lb.) (*As an 85kg athlete)

Jerk: 220KG (484 lb.) * Behind the Neck

Back Squat: 280KG (616 lb.) * At a bodyweight of 82KG

Front Squat: 230KG (506 lb.)

Asniel Rodriguez Jimenez – 105 KG

Snatch: 170KG (374 lb.)

Clean & Jerk: 205KG (451 lb.)

Jerk: 215KG (473 lb.)

Back Squat: 280KG (616 lb.)

Front Squat: 230KG (506 lb.)

What is your favorite part about living in the USA?

Both immediately responded “freedom” when I asked this question. They appreciate the fact that they can earn a living working in any capacity they want to, and they can spend their time any way they wish. With this freedom comes happiness, and they are very happy with their decisions that got them this far. In Quesada’s own words: “The biggest difference – in America if you can dream it you can do it.”  

What do you miss most about Cuba?

The ability to see their family and friends is their largest regret. Quesada is sending money to his mother on a weekly basis, and he believes that it will lead to his family having a better life, regardless of where any of them physically live.

What are your hobbies outside of Olympic Weightlifting?

They both enjoy sports, playing and watching them, when they are not at the gym. Asniel still enjoys watching and playing volleyball. Since moving to America, he enjoys watching American football and his favorite team is the Dallas Cowboys. Yadier also likes football, but the kind we call “Soccer” in the United States. His favorite team is FC Barcelona in La Liga, the top professional soccer division in Spain. Also, like many Cubans, he is a big fan of baseball- and he cheers for the top players that also have left his home country for better opportunities in Major League Baseball.

*Thank you to Coach Steve Galvan for helping to schedule the interview and providing translation services

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Featured image Viviana Podhaiski / @everyday_lifters on Instagram