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Joel Armas is a strapping guy, solid as a block of concrete, barrel-chested and handsome except for his feet, which are long, flat, and bumpy. His eyes are big and brown, and his smile is open-mouthed and wide. His posture is straight but not stiff; he moves with an ease and grace that is surprising for someone so muscular. He is 34 years old and in the mornings can usually be found at the Westland Gardens Park pool, tucked in a quiet corner of Hialeah Gardens.
On a blindingly bright Saturday morning, Armas sits with his legs dangling in the water. He wears skin-tight black swim trunks and a pair of black swim goggles. The pool has been divided into lanes; Armas is planted on the edge of the middle one. Nearby, in the shallow area, three young boys splash around.
He draws up his leg and rests his left foot on the edge of the pool. Opening a Gatorade bottle with pink dish detergent inside and pouring the liquid on his foot, he rubs it all around. Armas then reaches for a huge two-foot-long black-and-yellow plastic fin. He twists and screws his foot into one of the pockets. He grunts. "See how tight this is?" he asks. Then he bends the other knee and jams his right foot into the other pocket. More grunting.
He slips into the pool and folds forward. With his arms extended over his head, biceps firmly near his ears, Armas swims — no, undulates — the length of the pool without taking a breath. His spine seems to be made of rubber as he curves his torso, hips, legs, and the fin in a serpentine motion. At the other end, he does a fluid turn, and seconds later arrives where he began.
By now the three boys have stopped to watch. "Whoa," one says in a loud whisper. "He looks like a dolphin."
Dolphin, merman, el hombre anfibio, whatever. Armas is used to the nicknames. With the help of his monofin, he is one of the fastest swimmers in the world, able to propel himself 50 meters in 16 seconds (more than 10 seconds faster than the world record for a non-fin breaststroke at the same distance). He broke the U.S. men's record in the 50-meter swim during his first international competition in Italy in 2006, and then bettered that time a few months later in Spain. After competing in the World Finswimming Cup in Hungary earlier this year, Armas is ranked ninth best monofin swimmer in the world. The eight men who have better times live in places such as China, Russia, and Italy — where monofin swimming is a popular sport.
Merman: Joel Armas
"In this country, the future of monofin swimming is very dark," he sighs. "No one in America cares whether or not I compete."
The Cuban-born athlete has little money, no sponsorships, and no team behind him. He has spent tens of thousands of dollars earned as a Broward County firefighter to compete overseas, and often has to hoist his giant black fin bag on buses or subways to the races. These days money is even tighter than usual. Armas is on a three-month leave of absence from his job so he can study at Miami Dade College to be a physician's assistant. Because of his age, he will soon have to make a choice: devote more hours to training or give it all up. The rest of the world's champion monofin swimmers are all in their twenties, and Armas knows the clock is ticking for him with every birthday that passes.
Fin swimming is virtually unknown in America. A group of Ukrainian guys started it in 1972; it spread through Russia and China and then to Greece, France, and Italy. Folks in a handful of Pacific Rim countries now practice the sport, as do a few swimmers in California and Texas. Most Americans use the monofins for training — it's a quick way of strengthening the leg muscles — or for free diving to crazy depths below the sea surface.
Over the years there has been talk of making monofin an Olympic sport, but it has never become a reality. Armas dreams of changing all of that. "I haven't met anyone who has seen this sport and hasn't fallen in love with it," he says.
His path to glory as a monofin swimmer won't be easy. But nothing in his life has been.
He was born September 24, 1973, in Santa Cruz del Norte, a small town in Cuba located halfway between Havana and Matanzas. The place is known for two things: the Havana Club rum factory and fishing. Armas's father, Ceren, and great-grandfather, Augustin Hernandez, were both expert fishermen. In 1954 Augustin was one of a few men who helped reel in a whale shark the size of a railroad car.
Armas's parents were both teachers who barely survived on the small salary provided by the Cuban government. Still, his childhood was happy. "He was always running around, trying to play baseball with the other kids," says Ceren. "He was a hyper little boy."
Ceren, a natural athlete who once trained for the Cuban national basketball team, tried to supplement the family's rations by spear-fishing grouper, which he cooked in the back yard. Then, one night in 1979, he headed for Miami on a small boat. Fearing reprisal, he didn't say a word to his family, which only learned he had made it three days later. "Life changed completely," Armas recalls. The local Communist party loyalists kept a wary eye on his family after that.