A British track star jumps through a tough decade

Ex-Cuban Yamilé Aldama, an Olympic triple jumper, struggled for years to become a British citizen and deal with family adversity. 

Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters
Yamilé Aldama of Britain competed in the triple jump at the world championships in Turkey. She went through a tough 10 years after emigrating from Cuba to Britain.

She calls it her "decade from hell." Yamilé Aldama, who had vaulted to the top echelons of sport as a triple jumper, was in a bleak place. A recent émigré to Britain from her native Cuba, she watched in horror as her Scottish husband was imprisoned on drug charges and her long-desired application for citizenship to Britain stalled. She was a world-class athlete suddenly alone, destitute, and without a country.

Today, 10 years later, Ms. Aldama is excitedly preparing for the Olympics in her adopted homeland – as one of Britain's best hopes for gold. It has been a long and arduous journey for the 39-year-old known as "Yami" – one through which athletics has been her constant lodestar.

In Cuba, where sport is promoted as a "right of the people," as Fidel Castro has put it, Aldama was sent to a special government-run boarding school for athletes.

After she ascended to national stardom – winning a silver medal at the 1999 World Championships in Seville, Spain, and a fourth place at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 – the Cuban authorities awarded her a car and an apartment. They also, as is customary, siphoned off her cash winnings.

It was not this, however, that made Aldama immigrate to Britain in 2001. She married her Scottish husband, Andrew, soon after meeting him, and his imprisonment two years later came as a devastating shock. Aldama did not even tell her family what had happened for a year. Dependent upon prize money and sponsorship to survive, she persisted with her training, her baby in a pram at the side of the track. Her longtime coach, Frank Attoh, whom she has called her "rock," kept her going, jiggling the infant on his hip when he was cranky and urging her on.

Amazingly, during this period, Aldama's athletic performance improved. She has said that her struggles gave her strength and forced her to focus. In 2003 she topped the world rankings. But, as the 2004 Athens Olympics approached, Aldama had no country to represent. Cuba considered her a defector and a British passport still eluded her, despite her many appeals to the government.

In January 2004, Sudan, keen to inspire its people with the example of international athletes after its civil war, offered Aldama a passport. She represented the country in Athens, finishing fifth, and won gold two consecutive years at the African Championships.

During this time, Aldama stuck by her husband, taking her son to visit him every week. In 2009 he was released, having served seven years of a 15-year sentence. Shortly afterward, she gave birth to their second son. In 2010, she received a British passport, and in 2011 she represented her new country at the 2011 World Championships in South Korea, finishing fifth.

Not everyone is happy with the growing number of foreign-born athletes like Aldama that represent Britain. The tabloid newspapers, with their xenophobic tendencies, have dubbed them "Plastic Brits." But Aldama's positivity and charisma have endeared her to her teammates. The head athletics coach, Charles van Commenee, even pushed her as a candidate for the captaincy of the British team in London.

Despite her age, Aldama appears to be in her prime. She prides herself on her physical stamina: She pushes a car around a parking lot near her north London training base as part of her workout regimen. In March she won a gold medal at the World Indoor Championships in Istanbul, Turkey.

But it is determination and grit that got her through the travails of the last decade. Today, she has none of the reticence usual among athletes when they are asked what they hope to win. She wants a gold medal. And nothing, including a recent shoulder injury, will deter her.

As she wrote in a recent blog post in the Guardian, "it doesn't matter if I jump with just one arm … I will have a good Olympic Games. Whatever it takes."


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Yamilé Aldama: A British track star jumps through a tough decade

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