Annia Hatch: The extraordinary gymnast who defied a president to achieve Olympic glory

This interview is part of an exclusive Yahoo series called 'How To Raise An Olympian', in which we speak to Olympic stars and their parents to get a unique insight into what it takes to raise an elite athlete. Watch the full interview above - and for more see the links at the bottom of the page.

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At first, the career of Annia Hatch, the greatest Cuban gymnast of all time and Olympic medallist for the United States, seemed doomed to fail. She overcame initial rejection from the gymnastics institute, injuries, bullying and racism, and even became another bone of contention between Cuba and the US.

But nothing could hold this extraordinary athlete back.

In 1996, when she was at the peak of her career, the island's sports authorities refused to let her to compete in the Atlanta Olympics. Following the greatest disappointment of her sporting life, Annia got married and emigrated to the US where, after a five-year retirement, she became a double Olympic medallist at the unusually old age of 26.

In 2008, her name was inscribed in the American Gymnastics Hall of Fame.

Today, Annia is 43-years-old and has two small children. She remains active as a coach. In the midst of the pandemic, she taught virtual lessons from home in Long Island, New York, and joined PyL, a professional gymnastics league founded by Yin Alvarez, the former coach of Cuban American gymnast and Olympic medallist Danell Leyva. The organisation seeks to give athletes professional opportunities after they have completed their annual competitive cycle.

Annia, who has not returned to Cuba in 21 years, lives immersed in an English-speaking world and often cannot find the exact words in her mother tongue. Short on her words but expressive, the Cuban American athlete spoke for several hours with Yahoo Sport over the phone about her experiences in Cuba and the United States, and the challenges that an Olympic gymnast faces.

ATHENS - AUGUST 22:  Annia Hatch of the USA (silver), Monica Rosu of Romania (gold) and Elena Zamolodchikova of Russia (Bronze) stand on the dias after the medal ceremony for the women's artistic gymnastics vault event on August 22, 2004 during the Athens 2004 Summer Olympic Games at the Olympic Sports Complex Indoor Hall in Athens, Greece. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Annia (left) celebrating silver in for the women's artistic gymnastics vault event in 2004. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images) (Chris McGrath via Getty Images)

She took on racism with tenacity and talent

Since she was a child, Annia - who in Cuba is known by her maiden name, Portuondo - enjoyed physical activity. She was born in the eastern province of Guantanamo but moved to Havana with her mother, María Soto, at a very young age. When she was four, she was recruited to practise gymnastics. Two years later, she was rejected when she tried out for the National Gymnastics School.

“The first time I did the test they rejected me, not because I wasn’t good, but because my appearance wasn’t what they were looking for. When I was six, they thought I had lots of muscle, a big butt and that my feet were flat. After a few days, they decided to do another test - I don't know why they changed their mind - and then I got in”, she said.

Annia Hatch as a child in Cuba (Courtesy of the athlete)
Annia Hatch as a child in Cuba (Courtesy of the athlete)

Annia would soon stand out, not only because of her excellent performance, but because in the 1980s, she was one of the few Black gymnasts in Cuba, a country where much of the population is mixed-race.

“They were thinking of the Russians, who were tall and not very muscular, and yes, it was racist because the mentality was that girls like that were going to be the best internationally. At that time, the Escuela Nacional had very limited resources and didn’t want to waste money on somebody they believed ‘wouldn’t measure up’ to represent Cuba, as they said then, but I showed them. I changed all that and they did begin to believe that Black gymnasts could do well, and they recruited more black and mixed-race athletes”, she said.

But racism was not her only obstacle. After suffering an injury at the age of seven, she was on the brink of being kicked out of the National Gymnastics School. But coach Rene Sanson, who would accompany her throughout the rest of her career on the island, stepped in and prevented this.

“He had to sign a paper so they wouldn't take me out of school. He believed that I could be a gymnast, but no one else wanted to train me at the time”. That gesture from Sanson was “lucky and blessed”.

Annia also has grateful memories of Teresa Oliva, the technical director at the National Gymnastics School - known as the Márta Károlyi of Cuba. She was also black and supported the idea of sending Annia to international competitions.

The Cuban athlete was a boarder at the National Gymnastics School from the age of 6 to 13. This system had the advantage of alleviating the country's chronic transportation problems for high-performance athletes, but for Annia, it brought others into an already competitive environment.

“I didn't like school. I didn't really have many friends. I was always sad and, when I could, I preferred going to the trouble of getting home so I could sleep peacefully. I was constantly bullied. It started with girls making fun of my hair, that I didn't know how to comb my hair - I was six years old and I didn't know how. Then that I wasn't good at gymnastics and when I was good, that I didn't have to train because I was going to win anyway. That’s why I never had many friends, because I was constantly bullied”, she remembers.

Annia Hatch wearing the Cuban team uniform. (Courtesy of the athlete)
Annia Hatch wearing the Cuban team uniform. (Courtesy of the athlete)

Gradually, Annia started to compete - and succeed. Aged nine, she won two silver medals, in floor and vault. At 10, she competed against Tatiana Gutsu, who won gold in the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, and finished second in one of the events. And at her first World Cup she placed 10th and fourth in parallel bars.

Gradually, her name was slowly starting to be internationally.

The strains of training in Cuba

But training was hard back home, where conditions were very limited, including not having a car to drive to practice.

"Sometimes I would ride my bicycle and it would take 45 minutes to an hour to get to the training centre. I was tired when I got there. Sometimes they would pick me up, sometimes not. I would finish practice around 9.30 p.m. and get home at 10 p.m., go to bed at 11.30 p.m. and get up again around 5 a.m., and start the day again."

At about 12 years old, when she had already won in two Central American Games - six gold medals in the first and five gold and one bronze in the second - she was given an apartment because she didn’t have an adequate housing situation.

"My coach had talked a lot about my living conditions at the National Sports Institute, which governs policy towards athletes on the island. Since we arrived in Havana, I had been living in a plot (an old house with several rooms where different families live together). The front end was falling off and when my coach came, he looked up at the ceiling and freaked out. I lived in that house from two to 12 years old. They finally gave me an apartment”.

Annia competing (Courtesy of the athlete)
Annia competing (Courtesy of the athlete)

The blow that cut a star’s career short

Annia was the first Latin American to win a medal at a world gymnastics championship, in Puerto Rico, in 1996. “It was exciting. No gymnast in the region - male or female - had won a medal until I won bronze in vault. They gave me a plaque and even gave money to the Cuban government for my record of being the first Latin American to win a World Cup medal. The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) gave me a wild card so I could go to the Atlanta Olympics.”

However, the island's sporting authorities denied her this opportunity and decided to finance the trip only for the men's gymnastics team.

“I was still in Puerto Rico, after the World Cup, and my coach started calling INDER and asking if there was any possibility for me to go to the Olympics, and they didn't give any concrete answer. He realised that they were not going to send me and decided to stay and live in Puerto Rico, because he figured he would never have a better chance to stay in the United States.

"When I got [to Cuba] I thought maybe they were going to change their mind and they didn't give me a clear answer either, because they didn't want me to retire yet. I was active for one more year. I felt that my body and mind were being wasted at that time. I was discouraged because my only coach was gone, I no longer trusted many of the teachers and I was afraid of injuring myself.

She officially retired in 1997 at a national event and although she tried to study art history, she had already decided to get married and leave Cuba.

Annia Hatch in the United States. (Courtesy of the athlete)
Annia Hatch in the United States. (Courtesy of the athlete)

Return to sport in the United States

Annia married Alan Hatch, an American coach and former gymnast with whom she had had a secret relationship during part of the time she was in Cuba. In 1999, the young woman came to the United States and began studying fashion design while training young athletes in the gym she had with her husband.

Initially, she thought about competing in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, but the Cuban authorities refused to give the authorisation needed for the athlete to represent another country, despite the fact that former President Jimmy Carter interceded personally with Fidel Castro at the request of the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG).

“Cuba didn’t want me to compete ever again. They argued I had not officially retired and I showed them that I had. I had brought with me the video of the ceremony, which made it clear they were lying and that everything was in order, that I had retired. I had also signed the contract with the National Gymnastics Federation when I was a minor and it was no longer valid because my mother hadn't signed it at the time. The FIG asked Carter to step in and after about a year they did finally allow me to compete. I was an American citizen and they could no longer stop me."

Annia decided to compete again when she learned that her former Cuban teammate, Leyanet Gonzalez, came out of retirement at 22, after becoming a mother.

“I was excited about that, because I said to myself, ‘wow, after so many years… to retire and start over’, I thought maybe I could do it too. I started training again in 2000. It took me about six months to get back in shape to compete, the hardest were the first three, just physical preparation. I didn’t want to get injured.

The next step was to qualify for the American national team. Although the first competition didn’t go well for me, I placed fourth in a national championship and earned the right to attend the training camp.

"Training with Marta [Karolyi - then coordinator of the United States national gymnastics team] was very intense, too stressful. You weren’t allowed to sit; once I went there while I was sick and started coughing, and Marta talked to me as if coughing was forbidden, and I thought, ‘wow, this is worse than the army’. If you were mentally prepared for that, there was no problem and they would help you, but if not, you were immediately out. I survived because of all the difficulties I’d experienced in Cuba. Since, compared to the past, it wasn’t that difficult. For example, all the other girls complained about the housing situation and the conditions, but I thought it was great. Back in Cuba, I sometimes went to bed with nothing to eat, or very little. It was not easy”.

Qualifying for the Olympics and living a dream

Finally, the Olympic call came. "It took me by surprise. I was the foreigner in the system and the oldest, like the grandmother of the team and all the gymnasts in the Olympics at that time. They let me participate because they knew that I would be of help to the team. Today, competing at that age is normal”.

Annia Hatch celebrating her silver medal on the podium in Athens in 2004. (Photo: ADRIAN DENNIS / AFP via Getty Images)
Annia Hatch celebrating her silver medal on the podium in Athens in 2004. (Photo: ADRIAN DENNIS / AFP via Getty Images)

But getting to Athens was much harder than she ever imagined. Shortly before the Olympics, she suffered a severe knee injury to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and the doctors weren’t sure that she would return to training.

“I really thought I would never be a gymnast again, because it was a serious injury and the doctors were worried. They didn’t know if my knee was going to be stable - it usually takes 8 to 10 months to recover 100%. It took me four months to recover."

On the first day of competition at the Olympics, she qualified last for the final,

"Márta didn’t believe that I was going to get the medal. She told me to my face ‘Ah, Annia, you blew it’. I didn’t fall but the jump wasn’t good either. I left and I prayed to God so hard that night asking him to let me go to the finals.

"In the final, I did one less jump than I could have to be able to finish. I got the silver medal, even though I initially thought I could maybe win gold. But I was surprised to see the Romanian Monica Roșu do a more difficult jump than mine and since I was worried about my knee, I didn’t attempt more."

For Annia, the most valuable thing she’s gained from gymnastics is “the tenacity of how to face life and face problems in any situation, the discipline of what needs to be done and that you can’t get frustrated because there will always be obstacles, but you have to keep moving forward. More important than winning is how you get there; that has helped me a lot now in raising my children”.

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