Fearing more defections after a summer of them last year, Cuba has pulled out of the 30th Windermere Cup crew regatta at the University of Washington.
Yet the Huskies’ national-champion men’s rowing program, its coach Mike Callahan and Windermere Real Estate have scrambled to find a fitting replacement for their anniversary event May 7 through Seattle’s Montlake Cut: Russia’s men’s national team.
The Russians will compete against UW and Stanford 30 years and five days after their predecessors from the former Soviet Union made international sporting history. The USSR won the first Windermere Cup in 1987 during the Cold War.
These Russians will be bringing the majority of their eight-man crew that won a bronze medal at the 2015 Under-23 World Championships in Bulgaria. It is the country’s fourth appearance at the Windermere Cup. The Russians were third in 1996, and first over UW and Michigan in 2006.
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Cambridge University in England will replace Cuba in the women’s Windermere Cup final.
“Russia and the CUWBC are among the best crews in the world and are fitting opponents in this historic year for the Windermere Cup,” Callahan said.
OB Jacobi, president of Windermere Real Estate, sold programs for his father, Windermere founder John Jacobi, at the first Cup 30 years ago. The Soviets routed UW one month before President Ronald Reagan stood in West Berlin and challenged the Soviet Union’s leader by declaring “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
“The very first Windermere Cup in 1987 saw the former Soviet Union take on the UW in an epic matchup that would ultimately make international sporting history,” OB Jacobi said. "Bringing Russia for the 30th anniversary is as close as we can come to recreating that celebrated first race of this storied event.”
In January UW and Windermere announced the Cubans were coming to Seattle after decades of attempts to get them to the Windermere Cup. The Cubans even signed the contract to compete. But the office of Sen. Maria Cantwell, which was to help coordinate and expedite the application process for the Cubans’ visitor visas, warned in early January the Cuban teams had yet to apply for visas and that it was far from a done deal they were actually coming.
Officially, UW was announcing Tuesday the Cuban men’s and women’s national teams pulled out because the Windermere Cup will take place late in the Olympic training cycle, less than three months before the 2016 Summer Games in Rio De Janeiro.
But The News Tribune has learned from multiple sources with direct knowledge of the change in plans the Cubans were concerned about losing more athletes to defections while more of their national teams competes in the United States.
While relations between the U.S. and Cuba have warmed recently, the Cuban government still fears its best athletes will flee for far better economic and career opportunities.
Former UW Director of Rowing Bob Ernst has said for decades he didn’t think the Huskies could get to race Cuba in Seattle as long as Fidel Castro was there. Castro is 89 years old and still there; his brother Raul is Cuba’s president. But in late 2014 the Obama administration began some normalization of relations with Castro’s island nation 90 miles from Florida. In July of last year President Obama announced formal reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba. Each country opened embassies in the other’s capital, Washington, D.C., and Havana. That accelerated the effort to get the Cubans to row at UW.
But the United States Trade embargo of Cuba in 1962 is still intact. That prohibits American and Cuban citizens from traveling and conducting commerce completely freely between the two countries. So defections are still a threat -- and a fact of Cuban sporting life.
Last July four Cuban rowers defected to the U.S. from the rowing competition at the Pan American Games in Canada. They fled their rowing venue in St. Catharines, Ontario, less than 15 miles from the border at Niagara Falls, New York. That same month the Cuban soccer team had four players defect while it was playing in the Gold Cup tournament in North Carolina and Arizona.
In 2008, seven Cubans on the nation’s Under-23 men’s soccer team defected while competing in Tampa, Florida. Hundreds of baseball players have defected out of Cuba to eventually sign professional contracts to play in the U.S. Just two weeks ago, the Mariners signed outfielder Guillermo Heredia. He defected from Cuba last year.
Osvaldo Alonso, a Seattle Sounders midfielder, defected to the U.S. while he was playing in Houston as a 21-year old with Cuba’s national soccer team in 2007. He slipped out the side door of a Walmart.
The U.S. has had since the Clinton administration of the 1990s what’s known as a "wet foot/dry foot" policy. Any Cuban who sets foot on U.S. soil is allowed to stay.
So the 20-some names on the Cuban traveling party for the Windermere Cup needed to be vetted to include only those perceived to have a relatively low flight risk. Cuban authorities couldn’t get that risk low enough or conditions right enough for them to feel comfortable to compete in Seattle.
At least not yet.
“This is another page in our pursuit of Cuba,” Callahan said, “and we hope to see them on the Montlake Cut in the future.”
Cambridge University’s women’s crew will make its fourth Windermere Cup appearance. The last was in 2011 when the famed school in England took third. Cambridge finished second to China in 1990 and was third in 1992.
The Stanford men’s crew and San Diego women’s crew will round out the field as announced in January.
The Huskies’ men’s and women’s crews each have won 21 of the first 29 Windermere Cup finals races through the Montlake Cut on the southern edge of UW’s campus. The Cup regatta plus annual boat parade put on by the Seattle Yacht Club kick off the Pacific Northwest’s boating season each first Saturday in May.