Cuban Olympic canoeing champion to compete as a refugee in Paris 2024. GETTY IMAGES

Fernando Dayan Jorge Enriquez, a sprint canoe champion who fled Cuba two years ago, is training and working to prepare for his participation in the refugee team. He won gold at Tokyo 2020. He then moved to the United States, where he competed and was invited to Paris 2024. His life is an adventure.

It is hard to believe what Jorge Enriquez has had to overcome. He won the gold medal in canoeing at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in the doubles with his teammate Serguey Torres Madrigal. He did it at the age of 22 and touched glory. But then his life took a turn. Now he has been invited to compete in the refugee team at Paris 2024. He can hardly believe it.

Returning to Cuba after winning at Tokyo 2020, Jorge Enriquez was looking for motivation. He had already tasted Olympic gold. Life is hard in Cuba, with low wages and shortages of food and other essentials, which made him think carefully about his future.

"I lived like everyone else in Cuba for six months on holiday. I was out of the sporting bubble," Jorge Enriquez told AFP in an interview at his training base. Jorge Enriquez dismissed the regime in his native Cuba as a farce. "So I deserted," he said.


Jorge Enriquez is set to train with his coach Nogueras in Florida. GETTY IMAGES
Jorge Enriquez is set to train with his coach Nogueras in Florida. GETTY IMAGES

In March 2022, the Cuban canoe team travelled to Mexico City for a three-week training camp. Jorge Enriquez managed to cross the border into the United States. He wanted to be reunited with his wife. From the airport in Mexico City, Enriquez left with a colleague, whom he declined to name. 

Then began a harrowing 15-day journey to the US border, during which they tried to go unnoticed and avoid being kidnapped for ransom. He told AFP that his final obstacle was crossing the Rio Grande. They made it, but not before Jorge Enriquez heard the screams of a woman in danger while he was on the US side of the river. 

"She was in the middle of the river, holding on to a rope, saying she was going to let go, that she couldn't hold on any longer," said the canoeing champion. Jorge Enriquez decided to go back into the water to save the woman. "I told her, 'Come on, we'll make it,'" he recalled.

Jorge Enriquez during the event in which he became Olympic champion at Tokyo 2020. GETTY IMAGES
Jorge Enriquez during the event in which he became Olympic champion at Tokyo 2020. GETTY IMAGES

After the rescue, Jorge Enriquez returned to the United States as a hero. He had saved the life of a stranger. Everything seemed to change, but he faced days of being treated like any other person entering the country without papers. He was detained, released and awaited a hearing with immigration authorities on his asylum claim. Jorge Enriquez flew to Miami, where his wife was waiting for him at a cousin's house.

There he began a hard life. While training for his sport, he worked as a plumber and maintenance man. "I would get up at 4 a.m. to train, then work for eight hours, then come home to train again," said Jorge Enriquez.

One day he met Alain Nogueras, who is now his coach, without knowing it. The neighbours started cheering him on at training and he became motivated. There, in West Florida, he began to regain his form and became a leading sprint canoeist in Florida and the United States, winning a bronze medal at the ICF Canoe Sprint World Cup.

Jorge Enriquez is now living a dream after everything he has been through. GETTY IMAGES
Jorge Enriquez is now living a dream after everything he has been through. GETTY IMAGES

Then everything followed. The US authorities granted his request for asylum and he was able to bring his parents to Florida while he trained to return to the Olympics. A year later, he received a letter from the International Olympic Committee. They had accepted his application to be part of the Refugee Olympic Team. 

"I was overwhelmed with happiness," said Jorge Enriquez. "I will be the flag bearer with so much pride. "He said, "I have no barriers in my mind, especially after everything I have been through since I arrived here.