July 26, 2012
Former Florida Atlantic University cross country runner Manny Huerta will be an Olympian for the first time, after he qualified for the United States Triathlon team for the summer's London Olympic Games.
Huerta, 28, finished ninth overall at the ITU World Triathlon, giving him the second US triathlon slot. American and now-four-time Olympian Hunter Kemper finished fifth in San Diego to claim the country's automatic berth. It took a top-nine finish for another American to qualify, and Huerta earned that in a time of 1:49.31.
"Going into the race I felt good, I was healthy and mentally ready to go," said Huerta. "I came out of the swim a bit behind from where I expected to be, but I made up a lot of ground on the bike, and then had one of my best runs to secure the spot. At the finish line, I was very happy because all the hard work of pretty much my entire life had just paid off. Now my dream will become a reality and I will get to race at the biggest sporting event in the world."
Huerta competed for the FAU cross country team in 2002 and 2003, leaving school to pursue triathlon training full-time. For nearly six full years, he held the school record in the cross country 5K (16:05.59), a mark that still ranks him second all-time in Owls' history to this day.
"I only have good memories from FAU," said Huerta. "I was so excited when I started going there, from the sport facilities and sport programs to the classrooms and the dorms, everything was really good. I wish I could move back there again!"
"Manny was really a coach's dream," said FAU head track and cross country coach Alex Smolka. "He worked hard, he's funny, a good teammate; a great guy to be around. We didn't have him around for as many years as we hoped, but he certainly was able to come here and help our program out, and then continue on to his dream of the Olympics."
Huerta credits the coaching staff for helping him get to where he is today.
"Alex (Smolka) and I had a good connection, he and (then-assistant coach) Matt Corwin understood the type of training I needed to succeed at the time," he said. "I wasn't used to running so many miles, so instead they let me do a lot of the cross training, the swim and bike, that I was used to. That way I wouldn't risk getting injured. I'm very happy that they were part of my development as an athlete."
Among his many accolades since leaving FAU, Huerta won the 2006 USA Triathlon Under-23 National Championship, was the 2011 Pan Am Games Silver Medalist and was named 2011 USAT Olympic/ITU Athlete of the Year.
"It's a great testament to perseverance," said Smolka. "We always tell our athletes, especially in distance events like the triathlon, that perseverance is a key component to success. Manny making the Olympic team now is really proof that that statement is true; that you have to stick with it, to go through the highs and lows. If you keep working very hard, great things like this can happen."
Another key part of Huerta's Olympic development was being chosen for USA Triathlon Project 2012, a program that "provides an administrative, performance, and financial support structure to assist athletes in their development toward podium performances on the international stage, qualification for the Elite National Team, and ultimately the 2012 Olympic Team."
"Being part of USAT Project 2012 was critical. They funded my way to many of my races and gave me the initial push I need it to make it all the way," said Huerta. "Without the help from USA Triathlon and the USOC, I would not been able to afford to go to all these races and eventually make the Olympic Team."
Huerta lives in Miami, but will spend the rest of his preparation for the London Games training in Costa Rica, near an active volcano.
"I've been living here (in Costa Rica) and in Miami for the past two seasons," he said. "Here, I can live and train at altitude, which is a huge asset for any endurance athlete. The temperature is good too. Not too hot and not too cold. I'll be here until I fly out to London for the Opening Ceremony."
Like any athlete attending his first Olympic Games, Huerta is looking to soak in as much of the atmosphere as possible while he is there, but has a firm goal in mind for his competition.
"I want to take advantage of this opportunity and do everything I can," he said. "I will be doing the Opening and Closing ceremonies, I'll go watch other sports and stay at the Olympic Village. I want to enjoy the experience, but I also want to have a very good race. The best an American male has finished in the triathlon at any of the previous Olympic games is seventh place, so that should be a good and realistic goal for me. I want to come back from the games knowing I did the best I could, and hopefully be competitive."
To track Huerta's progress up until the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony on Friday, July 27, follow him on Twitter, @trimanny, or visit his official site: http://mannyhuerta.blogspot.com. The Triathlon will take place on Tuesday, August 7.