In October of last year Ivan Dominguez, a Cuban-American who’d recently taken up triathlon, nursed his new car—its transmission failing—through the outskirts of Las Vegas, less than 18 hours ahead of his first half-iron, Silverman 70.3. He managed to pick up his packet and drop his run shoes at T2 before limping to a local dealer, who told him the repair would be $4000. Not having the time to make a suddenly expensive decision, Dominguez rented a car, piled his bike into its trunk, dropped it off at T1, and managed to get in the water for a short swim as the sun was going down. “I didn’t get to the hotel until after eight o’clock,” he told me. “I was totally wrecked from the day.” He choked down some food and went to bed, sleeping fitfully, and rose at four.
After a solid swim he banged out the second fastest ride of the day, only sacrificing one second to that year’s eventual professional winner, Drew Scott. “After going crazy on the bike I was feeling pretty wasted,” he said, but ran strong enough to win the amateur title by four minutes. He came in 7th overall, beating a handful of strong professionals. After the race he realized he had no way of retrieving his rental car, and finally bummed a ride back to the lake at 6 pm, hours after the race had concluded. He returned the rental and crashed on a friend’s couch for three days, waiting for his own car’s repair. “You cannot plan on being late,” he told me, reprising the whole affair. “You have to be prepared, though, for lots of crazy things to happen. You have to go with the flow.”
Dominguez is no stranger to crazy things and trying to stay relaxed. An elite road and track cyclist in Cuba, he traveled to the United States in 1997 for one of the track World Cup races. Upon returning home to Cuba after the race he bumped into one of his friends who, surprised to see him again, said “You didn’t stay there? Why didn’t you stay?” Dominguez told me it hadn’t occurred to him before the trip, but now his friend had planted the seed. “I saw the other older racers in Cuba—once they stopped getting results, they didn’t get any support any more from the federation. A lot of them ended up with nothing, working in the street. I started making a plan.” He came back to the States in 1998 for the Goodwill Games and called his uncle in Miami. The first thing his uncle asked him was “Are you going to defect?” His uncle gave him a number to call of a friend in New York, who agreed to meet Dominguez at seven in the morning, a few streets from the hotel where the Cuban team was staying. The friend was late. “I started seeing police cars on the streets, headed for the hotel. Lots of flashing lights. I thought ‘Those guys are looking for me!’” Eventually—an hour after the arranged time—a van pulled up, the window rolled down, and a man inside asked “Are you Ivan? We’ve got to get out of here.”
A week later he was in Miami, living with his uncle. He took one of the newspapers with his picture on it (“CUABN CYCLIST DEFECTS!”) and his passport and went to immigration. “It was easier for Cubans, and an easier time for immigration in general,” he said. “I showed the woman my stuff and she said ‘Oh, cool. OK, here, sign these, and you’ll get your green card in a few weeks.’” He got his green card, got a job, and didn’t touch his bike for nine months. “I was so tired from cycling,” he said. “From 1993 to 1998 I would race eight to ten week-long stage races a year and ride on the track full time. I was the best rider in Cuba, but I was trashed.”
He worked quietly, lived with his uncle, learned English, and started riding again about a year later, winning local races on “almost no training at all.” He joined the Saturn Professional Cycling Teamin 2001 and then embarked on the journeyman career of a pro cyclist in the United States: different teams each few years as the teams folded; not much in the way of prize money; tons of time on the road. Despite the conditions, Dominguez won at almost every major race in the US, winning bunch sprints all over the country for a handful of teams, earning the eventual nickname “The Cuban Missile.” He retired in 2010, closing out twenty years of racing on the bike.
“In Cuba,” he told me, “The offseason for cyclists is different from here. Here you guys don’t do much—maybe lift some, or do some skiing. In Cuba we just swim and run in the offseason, maybe lift a little. So when I thought about doing triathlon I already knew how to swim, how to run.” He started racing in 2014, found success quickly, and qualified to race professionally after Silverman. “If I was going to do it,” he told me, “I wanted to do it really well.”