A Fresh Start in a New Land

ORLANDO — It was two weeks ago when Yurisel Laborde stepped out from under the Hyatt Regency’s marquee onto Southeast Second Avenue in Miami, but she still recalls the fear that gripped her as she left the hotel.

The 28-year old Olympian walked quickly but cautiously, as inconspicuously as possible past guests and valets, disappearing out of their view and into the afternoon.

The deserted stretch of urban boulevard — the lonely confluence of the Miami River, Brickell and downtown — didn’t scare Laborde. If accosted, the 5-9, 171.5-pound world champion judoka could take care of herself.

“The first two days, I was afraid someone would find me and take me back to Cuba, ” Laborde said. “But I’m no longer scared.”

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Laborde, the favorite to win a gold medal in Beijing this summer, relinquished that chance when she left the 18-person Cuban judo delegation on May 11, the last day of competition at the Pan American Championships at the James L. Knight Center in Miami.

“I brought those thoughts [of leaving] with me from Cuba, but I wasn’t sure yet, ” Laborde said. “When I got to Miami, a lot of Cubans told me life was better here, that I would be free. The last day of competition, I went to the venue and watched my teammates. After that, I left. I left a letter to my trainer, where I explained my decision and said I hoped he would forgive me one day.”

STARTING THE PROCESS

Her defection was made official a week later when she retained Miami lawyer Wilfredo “Willy” Allen and began the process of claiming political asylum. Now, the best judo player on American soil sits in the living room of friends in western Orlando, stuck in a competitive and political limbo and at a personal crossroads.

“The hardest part is not doing judo, ” Laborde said. “Since leaving, I’ve just been sleeping, resting. I’ve been really tired.”

It will be about three months before Laborde’s asylum claim is officially recognized, and in the meantime, she has no documentation, no drivers license, no income and no way to even join the local gym. And while she said Orlando is “OK,” she would prefer to be in a bigger city with more of a judo presence, like Miami or New York.

“I’d be willing to go to anywhere in the United States if someone offers me a chance to compete, ” said Laborde, adding that she has been contacted by “judo people” in Miami and Connecticut.

Laborde’s first stay in Miami was short-lived. After meeting a friend involved in Puerto Rican judo, she made her way north to Orange County. She stayed there in hiding for a week before producers for the Mega TV talk show Maria Elvira offered to drive her to Miami to be on the show.

At the television studio, Laborde met Allen, an immigration attorney who has represented several high-profile Cuban athlete defectors.

“She is still in the process of claiming asylum, a process a lot of others have gone through, and she has a way to go still, ” Allen said, adding that after a year and a day from her defection, Laborde would be eligible for citizenship under the Cuban Adjustment Act.

But a return to Olympic-level competition will have to wait longer. The rules mandate a four-year wait after a judoka’s last international match, which would make Laborde eligible for the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

“Just like anyone else from Haiti or the Dominican Republic or any place else, she would be more than welcomed to join our team after she goes through the proper steps, ” USA Judo President Jose Humberto Rodriguez said. “The first step is becoming an American citizen.”

Laborde still feels the sting of giving up a sure shot at a gold medal. After leaving, she even thought about rejoining the contingent before it left for Havana.

“I heard that they were waiting for me, ” she said. “But I knew if I returned I’d get sanctioned, and I couldn’t compete in the Olympics, anyway. I could have won the gold.”

Laborde made her decision for a better life.

TOUGH LIFE

“A Cuban athlete’s life is a hard, complicated life with a lot of sacrifice involved, ” Laborde said. “You don’t see the fruits of your labor. I played for 12 years on the national team, and I was never able to get a home or a car. I was twice the champion of the world, and I couldn’t have a home or a car.”

Since being identified as a superior judoka at 16, Laborde saw her mother about twice a year.

Her mother was “heartbroken and confused” when, after staying behind, she told her of her decision to defect, but she has slowly come to accept it. Laborde said that if it were possible, “She [my mother] would come to America to be with me.”

With time, the tinge of apprehension and regret has faded. When asked what she would have told a young Yurisel, Laborde replied: “I’d have told her to leave earlier.”

Those wishing to help Yurisel Laborde should contact the law offices of Wilfredo Allen at 305-854-5955.