Cuban Olympian Yeisser Ramirez didn’t even like fencing as a child. But he stood out as a tall, athletic 10-year-old boy in school, which got the attention of one of the coaches at EIDE (Escuela de Iniciación Deportiva) , a sports-focused academy in Guantanamo, Cuba where he grew up.
Under the ruse of treating his son to a special lunch, Yeisser’s father deposited him at this new school one day. The school was complete with new friends and a unique daily schedule of academics in the morning. Athletics in the afternoon.
For nearly a decade in Cuba, Ramirez honed his skills as a fencer, ultimately making the Cuban world championship team at 18 years old, one of the youngest members on the team.
Despite being recruited by the fencing coach, Ramirez was not interested in a sport that didn’t seem popular with his peers, like basketball, volleyball or baseball.
“To be honest, my goal was to quit fencing the first week and do basketball,” he recalled.
But when coaches from other sports at the school tried to poach him and convince him that he wouldn’t be well-suited for the unique sport, their approach backfired. He was training in epee fencing. This utilizes the largest and heaviest of the three weapons used in the sport of fencing – perfect for his height and build.
All of the coaches from other sports were asking, “why are you doing fencing?”, he remembers. I took that as a challenge: “Watch’.”
The personal challenge worked. By 17 years old, he was at the top of the rankings and had an invitation to the Cuban national team.
“I’m glad I didn’t quit,” he said.
Now 34 years old, Ramirez still hasn’t given up. This summer he journeyed to Tokyo as an Olympic contender representing the United States in epee fencing.
I met Ramirez as I meet most people – through dancing.
We’re both part of a vibrant community of salsa dancers in New York City who love Cuban music and dance, and during the pandemic we mask-danced safely together at various beach outings and Central Park events. I knew Yeisser as a passionate and exhilarating dancer and as a DJ who never let me rest as he kept playing my favorite timba songs.
Little did I know that he was an Olympian hiding in plain sight, with a fascinating decades-long journey of struggle and determination to get from playing shoeless in the streets of Cuba to representing the United States at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
For nearly a decade in Cuba, Ramirez honed his skills as a fencer. He ultimately made the Cuban world championship team at 18 years old, one of the youngest members on the team.
Ramirez had to decide: Stay in Cuba and join the national team, or start a new life in the US.
“I saw the life of the top two or three fencers in the country. I saw that they had been on the national team for 15-20 years and they didn’t have anything. I saw myself and my future based on their situation. I quit the next day.”
The process wouldn’t be easy though. According to Ramirez, the Cuban authorities were loath to give the proper authorization to release him – a paperwork process termed “carta blanca” by Cubans trying to emigrate – after so many years of training. Ramirez spent two years on the island dealing with bureaucracy until he finally made it to Miami at age 20.
Life in the US started off with a move to the Bronx with his father, where he talked to his cousin about continuing his fencing career. She was a bit skeptical – and frank with Ramirez that fencing seemed to be a sport for wealthy white people. But she found a fencing club that blew away the stereotypes – the Peter Westbrook Foundation. Westbrook, the first African-American to medal in fencing in the Olympics (Los Angeles – 1984), started the organization to bring fencing to underserved children.
Ramirez’ introduction to Westbrook was auspicious. The five-time Olympian took him under his wing, helping him obtain work, navigate the immigration process, and procure sponsorship for his training at the fencing club.
“Everything I have in fencing is because of Peter, the mentorship, everything,” he said. “Coming from Cuba with nothing – Peter took a chance on me.”
Despite the good fortune of connecting with Westbrook, the path to the Tokyo Olympics was not a straight one. Ramirez arrived in the US in 2007. Fourteen years later he was finally at the Olympics after many starts and stops.
In those intervening years, he worked day jobs – from manual labor at a beverage factory to becoming a financial advisor – to support the pursuit of his sport.
But he also quit – twice.
Once in 2015, after he failed to make the Rio Olympics (he came in second in the US and only the #1 athlete got to go).
“I was a little sad and disappointed,” Ramirez recalled. “I thought, let me take some time off and focus on my career. Maybe I’m not coming back.”
He spent two years building up a career that would support him financially, while doing absolutely nothing related to fencing.
Finally Peter and he had a “very honest, very real” meeting. They talked about his potential to still make it on the Olympic team and the inner drive of an elite athlete that is difficult to put aside.
“In those two years, I started feeling like I needed something,” he explained. “In fencing, you’re always under pressure. Once you remove that, you start feeling like your life is very easy and calm, and you start feeling lost because that’s not who you are.”
So he returned to the sport and rose up through the rankings to the #5 spot nationally. And then, he got hurt, took a little break, and … got hurt again.
This time, he turned off the sport for about six months. He took a trip to Cuba and something miraculous happened. He did “all the wrong things” for a month – partied, stayed out late, drank – and came back healthy.
A month later, he competed for the first Olympic qualifier – and he won. By the Budapest Grand Prix he had secured his place on the team.
Fourteen years after arriving in the US, twenty years after starting his training as a young child, he was going to Tokyo. He was going to be an Olympian.
“That’s exactly what I did,” he describes. “I went in with an appreciation mindset versus an expectation mindset. If you appreciate, you can enjoy the journey.”
Ramirez balanced his time on the piste with connecting with other Olympian competitors, and he was delighted to discover that he could hang with other elite athletes, like NBA superstar Kevin Durant, as an Olympic peer.
Ramirez had a thoughtful approach to participating in his first Olympics. He was serious about competing and didn’t want to get “caught up in the hype”, but he also took the advice of a friend who medaled in the 2016 Rio Olympics, to put aside worries about medaling and prioritize having “the most fun of your life”.
“Once you’re there, you don’t feel any different. They treat you with so much respect,” he said about the athletes he met from around the world.
Although he was disappointed that he didn’t come home with a medal, the fencer sees the whole experience as an opportunity of a lifetime, especially considering the struggle that got him on an international stage for a sport often associated with the wealthy and privileged.
“It was amazing – my first experience with something that I worked so hard for my entire life. Coming from where I came from, a kid who trained with no shoes and barely any equipment, coming from the poorest town in Cuba and then making it all the way to America.”
“It took a lot of mental energy,” he remembers of his days working full-time and training at night. “I’m very grateful.”
So what’s next for the 6’6″ fencer? Ramirez is eyeing Paris in 2024 and another big goal.
“I love the sport,” he says of his plans to continue training and secure more sponsorships to support his quest for Olympic gold, silver or bronze.
But he also wants to see more Latinos view fencing as a sport for them too. He encourages others to take on big challenges even if the odds seem stacked against them.
“I want to write a book and hopefully inspire people that if I can do it, they can too.”