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Road to Tokyo: 21 Questions with Yeisser Ramirez

04/13/2021, 9:30pm CDT
By Kristen Henneman

Yeisser Ramirez qualified to represent Team USA at the Tokyo Olympic Games after moving to the United States from Cuba. Photo Credit: #BizziTeam

As the countdown continues to the 2021 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo, USA Fencing is sitting down with members of Team USA to share the stories behind their Road to Tokyo.

Born in Cuba, Yeisser Ramirez (Brooklyn, N.Y.) came to the United States in 2007 at 21 years old and soon began training at the Peter Westbrook Foundation. After winning the USA Fencing Division I National Championship in 2014, Ramirez became a U.S. citizen and represented the United States at the 2015 Senior World Championships. Although Ramirez missed out on the 2016 Games when Team USA didn’t qualify a full team, he punched his ticket to Tokyo last month with a top-64 finish in at the Kazan World Cup.

In this week’s Road to Tokyo series, Ramirez discusses what it was like fencing in Cuba growing up, his struggles after coming to the United States, the athlete he looks up to most and his hobbies during quarantine.

1. You’ve qualified for Tokyo and will represent Team USA at the 2021 Games. What does that mean to you?

It means a lot. That’s one of the best questions I’ve heard in a long time. Coming from Guantanamo, I never thought about being in the Olympic Games, but I always had the feeling of ‘man, what it would be like to go there.’ I was taking to my cousin yesterday and remembering when we used to watch the Olympic Games and I always felt like, ‘The United States always wins … the United States is always a big team. Wow. It’s nice representing the United States of America.’ So now making the team means a lot. It means a lot to me.

2. What are you most excited for in going to the Olympics in Tokyo?

Honestly, after I was officially qualified, I wasn’t super, super pumped up like most people. I was very calm. I didn’t want to get caught up in the emotions and the feelings of thinking about going to the Games. I’m more like, okay, that was the goal. Now the goal is accomplished. What’s next? Now the goal is to medal at the Games, whether it’s team event or individual. So I’m really focusing on the process, not on the big picture, because a lot of people get caught up in the, ‘I’m going to the Games, It’s amazing.’ … I’m trying to focus on the moment now. When the Games happen, I will be excited, but right now, I’m not even thinking about it. I’m thinking I gotta get ready to go to my practice and I’m trying to focus on one day at a time.

A lot of people they fell into the Olympic recognition trap, and then they forget how to fence, they forget how to stay disciplined and they lose their hunger. I don’t want to lose that. The way I’m training, I’m training like the No. 5 and No. 4 guy on the team, which means I’m hungrier than the 1-3 ... the fifth guy is always training harder than anybody else because he’s trying to be on the team, so he's super, super disciplined. By thinking like that, it makes me hungrier. I cannot stop. I gotta keep on improving. I gotta keep on going. I gotta keep on going because the moment I stop thinking that, I’m done … I take the recognition, but I forget about it right away. That keeps me focused.

3. You were born in Cuba. What was it like growing up there?

I think I have a picture on Instagram of me training with no shoes. I always tell people, ‘You know, I don’t think you understand what it’s like to train on bare feet on the strip.’ Especially in epee, the whole body counts, so if somebody hit your toe, it was dangerous. But we didn’t know any better. I was like 11 or 12 and we’re training barefoot and then running on the street barefoot, and running like 30 minutes on the track and then go back to fencing and do everything barefoot because I only have one pair of shoes and it was to go to school and I could not afford to take my shoes for fencing.

Eventually, when I first got my first pair of sneakers – fencing shoes – it was when I was recruited to the National Team. I used those fencing shoes for everything – for  going out, for going to school and then going home, clean them up to make them nice after practice and then that day I have to wash them because it’s sweaty from fencing … I have literally one pair of shoes for the whole year. And then coming here, I see how kids from the beginning have a nice pair of fencing shoes, have a nice blade, have nice gear, have a nice mask, a nice glove. I was like, ‘Wow. I wish I had that when I was growing up in my country.’

4. How did you start fencing?

First of all, in the beginning, I didn’t like fencing. I didn’t know much about fencing, so a coach came to my school to recruit people for fencing and I was like, ‘Fencing? Nah. I don’t think I want to do that. I want to do boxing, volleyball, basketball or maybe karate – some type of different sport.’ And then I said, ‘No, no thank you.’ He kept on coming every day for one week. I said, ‘No, no thank you.’ And then he asked my teacher for my address and then he came to my house when I was in school. My father came the next day and he told me, ‘Let’s go for a ride. Let’s go for lunch.’ And I was like, ‘You never come here to take me for lunch. Why?’ And he’s like, ‘No let’s go for lunch. I have a break.’ And then we ride on the bike for like an hour. And I’m like, ‘Where are we going? Where’s the restaurant?’ And he’s like, ‘It’s like right there. It’s like two more blocks.’

And then he took me from my school and put me into different school without my permission, in a new classroom with new people. And he didn’t even tell me I was going to be fencing. And I was like, ‘What am I doing here?’ And he’s like, ‘Oh, I wanted you to go to this school because it’s better for your future, blah, blah, blah.’ And my coach came after lunchtime, like 2 o’clock, 4 o’clock and he’s like, ‘Hey, welcome back!’ And I was like, ‘What am I doing here?’ He said: ‘You’re a fencer!’ I’m like, ‘No I’m not!’ It was literally against my will.

I was talking to my pa the other day. I said, ‘Hey man, thank you for that because if it wasn’t because you’d make that decision, I don’t think I would be here in this moment in this position.’ … But that’s how I got into fencing. He got me into fencing and my plan was to quit two weeks from that point and I tried fencing, and I kind of started liking it because my friend was really pumped and everybody was like: ‘This big guy in fencing. I think he’s going to be superstar’ and I started beating people. I kind of liked hitting people with a sword … Everybody was after me recruiting me for track and field, boxing. ‘What are you doing fencing? Fencing’s not for you. You gotta do basketball.’ I’m like, ‘No, no, let me give it a try for like a year.’ And then in a year, I won the local championship and I was like, ‘Okay, I think I supposed to be here.’ [Laughs].

5. I know you then fenced for the Cuban national team for a few years. What was the experience fencing for Cuba?

In Cuba, I would say I had the last few years of Cuban fencing when they were really, really good at fencing. I obviously started out coming from a new environment. Everybody was older than me. I was literally one of the youngest guys in the group. I was, in the group, like the No. 17, No. 15 – something I like that. I literally had to work my way up because I’m from Guantanamo. Guantanamo is like the less resources city in Cuba and when you’re coming to Havana, that was where the national team training facility is, I literally had to adapt to everything. Everything was new. Sometimes they used to make fun of me because of my fencing shoes: ‘Yo, you don’t have any more shoes?’ I’m like, ‘Nope, this is the only pair I got.’

I remember one of the coaches told me, ‘If you want to be better than anybody else, you gotta train harder than anybody else.’ One thing that I did, I set up a schedule and said, ‘Okay, these guys, these are the top give guys in the county. They train Monday through Friday one session. You know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna train double sessions every day until Saturday.’ People started telling me, ‘You’re crazy! Who does that?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t care. I want to be the best fencer in Cuba and the only way I can do that, I have to do more than you guys. You guys have been here a long time, so I have to literally put my name on the line.’ And then after two months I was the first in and last out of the gym and all my friends were making fun of me because they were partying and I was like: ‘Nope, I gotta go back and hit it. I gotta go back and hit it. I gotta stay focused.’

And once I started beating them, that’s when they were like, ‘Oh, wait a minute. It works.’ And they all started coming with me and training with me at the same time, but it was already too late because I’d already passed them. I learned that hard work, dedication and discipline will beat talent any day of the day, twice on Sundays. That was my biggest lesson.

Then I got the visa to come to the United States when I was like two months away from the World Championships in Germany in Leipzig [in 2005]. And I was on the team. As a junior, I qualified for the senior team in Cuba, which was a big accomplishment for me because nobody expected that and it was really sad to leave that on the table when I had the visa letter come to my house. I was like: ‘Wow, I really wanted to go.’ But if you go to the World Championships, [since] Cuba is a communist county, they will hold you back for like two years before they release you to come to America, so I was like, ‘You know what? I’m not going.’ And then I quit.

6. When did you come to the U.S. and what was it like at first?

I came to the U.S. in 2007. I was fortunate to have family in New York … so it was a very easy process. Obviously, coming to New York, super, super overwhelming for somebody who didn’t speak the language at that point and it was very curious and noisy about everything. One thing that helped me, one of my father’s friends, he came from Barbados and he gave me advice. He’s like, ‘If you want to get ahead in this country, you have to learn the language.’ And he told me how to do it: try to learn three words a day. Just three. That’s what I did. Every day, I woke up in the morning, and I wrote three new words every single day and I was learning it. I had to make sure I learn it because in two weeks from now, I still have to remember the first words from the first day when I first started. That was a really big help.

I was literally lucky enough to find the [Peter Westbrook] Foundation. I went to internet and I started looking for a fencing club and then my cousin helped me find a club. I saw this club. This club helps inner city kids to reach fencing and things like that and I was like, ‘You know what? I want to try this club.’ I went there and Peter welcomed me with open hands and up to that point, everything I have in fencing I would say is because of Peter. Plus my hard work too.

7. And you came to the United States through the lottery, right?

Yes. That’s correct … My father never thought about coming here. I was a kid. I was like three years old – I don’t even remember that, but he put me down. Maybe like 17 years later, we got the lottery ticket and that was like a blessing from God because I never expected that, honestly.

8. What did you think of America before you came here?

I’m always an open-minded person. I always saw America as the country that everybody wanted to go. When I was growing up, I see people from Cuba live in America. At that point, most of the people that I knew they came from Miami, and becoming really successful, like very different person when it comes to the way they talk, the way they think, the way they do everything. And I was like, ‘Man, I want to go to America one day.’ But I never had that thinking that I would ever be able to do it. And then once I got into the national team in Cuba, I started seeing all my fellow fencers, my teammates that had traveled to America, that went to Atlanta Olympic Games in 1996.

I remember when I got the lottery, I kept it quiet. I didn’t tell anybody until last minute. Nobody knew … And then I started watching a lot of channels and TV and looking at Olympic Games, that was when I really thought about, ‘Wow, America is huge. They always dominate in any sport and they’re always like big everything.’ And I was like, ‘Man, if I get the chance to go to America, I would do it without a blink of my eye.’

And one day I coming from fencing, tired, and my father said, ‘Hey, I got two news, good one and bad one.’ And I was like, ‘Okay give me the good one.’ He said, ‘We’re going to America.’ I was like, ‘How?’

And he said ‘Don’t worry about it.’ I said: ‘No, you gotta tell me how we’re going to America.’ He said, ‘Well I put your name down in the lottery when you were like three years old.’ And I was like, ‘What? And you never told me that?’ And he just said ‘No.’

My father used to work for the government, so he never thought about leaving Cuba until he became self-employed. That’s when he started not liking his situation and it was really interesting that he never told anybody. Not even my mom. He kept it quiet until that happened. And that’s when my thinking change. I was like, ‘Wow, a dream come true.’ I told you that I wanted to do it, but it was far wishing because I didn’t know.

9. So talk to me more about the Peter Westbrook Foundation and fencing there and how Peter’s been able to help you?

When I first came here, it was very interesting because Peter put me into a test right away and said, ‘Oh, you from Cuba. You say you big time, blah blah blah. You know what? There’s a competition at the Athletic Club next week.’ And I was like, ‘What? ‘Yeah, but I haven’t fenced for two years.’ And he said: ‘Well, listen, if you want to be here, you gotta go to a competition and let me see what you got.’

And then I started training like crazy in a matter of a week. And I went to that competition and I came in second place. That’s when he was like, ‘Oh, okay. Okay. You know what? Come here three times a week and I’m going to have the coach giving you lessons and let’s see your progress.’ And then I started coming and coming and then I started getting better. Peter helped me to find a job because I didn’t have a job at that time. Peter also helped me to pay for a lot of my fencing spare shoes and equipment and literally everything.

The support from the Foundation, I didn’t see how big the Foundation was until I went to my first NAC. When I started competing and traveling, people said, ‘Oh wow, you guys are the most unique foundation group ever.’ We rally together. We cry together. We laugh together. When somebody wins, we smile. When somebody loses, we’re upset. It’s like a family. I cannot describe any more words. The Foundation is literally like a family. If I’m not home, I’m at the Foundation. The support that we have, it’s not just fencing. It’s about everything - life. I call Peter for any advice – life advice, relationship advice, fencing advice. Peter is literally the grandfather of everybody in the Foundation.

10. When you came here, were there any other obstacles you had to overcome?

When it comes to fencing, the main obstacle was I used to run out of gas. I remember I used to watch Ben Bratton, and I used to go, ‘How do you do it? When I’m in the top eight, I used to run out of gas.’ And the reason why is because the way I used to fence, I used to rely more on athleticism because that’s how they teach me in Cuba. And then I had to start watching all those guys – Seth Kelsey, Soren [Thompson] and Cody [Mattern] – how they not relied more on their thinking. I used to be the person that I’m in the top eight and boom, I didn’t make it to the top four. I’m tired, frustrated and I literally had to learn how to fence the American way because the way that I had in Cuba didn’t work here as well because [there was] so much competition.

In Cuba, we have a national competition and it was like the most 80 people. Eighty, maybe 90. In America, it’s always like 200, 300, 400 sometimes. It was very, very challenging – overwhelming for me. Now I know – I’m fencing more from experience versus speed and athleticism. That was my biggest challenge when it came to fencing.

11. If you had to fence foil or saber, which would you choose?

I started in foil. And maybe if my coach would not force me to do epee, I would do foil. But now that I’ve learned about myself, who I am and the type of person that I am, I would do saber because it’s more like, ‘I want to hit you. I want to hit you.’ I’m not really fast when it comes to saber, but I just like the fact that you run at somebody and just try to hit them.

12. You won the National Championship in 2014 and then you competed at the World Championships in 2015. What was it like wearing USA on your back?

It was funny because in Cuba, we call people from America gringos. So prior to the World Championship, I think we went to Zonals, and it was very exciting seeing my teammates from Cuba and competing against them. They call me, ‘Yo, gringo, gringo,’ and I’m like, ‘C’mon, I’m just a Cuban.’ And they were like, ‘No, you gringo now.’ And then they were like, ‘Wow, man, I’m really, really proud of you.’ And thinking back when I went to Cuba and I saw the conditions of the lack of resources and what they have to do to compete – they don’t’ travel international as much, maybe they have like one or two international competitions – and it was really sad. They always say, ‘Man, I’m so proud of you. If you ever made it to the Olympic Games, that would be an accomplishment not for you, but for all of us because you came from our school.’

A lot of people come to me from different countries and ask me, ‘How you became United States citizen?’ They have interest in fencing for the United States, but they don’t really understand it. They only see the glory … they don’t see the struggles. Now that I qualified for the Olympics and that dream is going to come true … it’s pride and it’s hard work. I put in a lot of hard work and nights that, I wouldn’t say cried, but frustration and disappointment. But I always say, ‘When something goes bad, just look around and see where you are and kind of be like, you know what? I’m in America. I’m in New York. What should I be complaining about?’ So it’s a deep emotion that I have, the feeling.

13. I know four years ago, you were in position to make the 2016 Team had the U.S. qualified a full team. How did that drive you in the push for 2020?

One thing that I did, I laid down on the paper, this is what I did in the 2016 season that didn’t work and I tried to something different than I did back then – my training, my thinking, my mental preparation, my approach to competition, everything. But the struggles and the mental toughness that I built from that season, that’s what really helped me a lot. Some people in this season, they freaking out and they be nervous and they be negative and they be super, super concerned or doubtful. I was the opposite. I was telling myself, ‘I been here. And let’s make it better.’

I took the approach of appreciation versus expectation because when you’re expecting one thing to happen – in 2016, I was expecting so much out of me, and I’m sure some athletes can relate to me, you expect so much from you that when you don’t do it, you feel down, you feel disappointment and you feel hurt. I changed that approach.

This year, I said, ‘You know what? This year, I’m not going to expect anything. I’m going to appreciate everything that I have. I’m going to appreciate every single touch, every match, every competition. When I feel pressure, I’m going to appreciate the pressure,’ and that’s one thing that set me apart from everybody else that every time I’m in a really tough situation, I appreciate. I say, ‘Hey God, thank you for putting me in this position. I appreciate you for that. Now it’s time to work,’ instead of saying, ‘Oh, I gotta win this bout because if I don’t win, so-and-so is going to make it or if I don’t win, I’m going to lose some points, blah blah blah.’ But my approach was that I appreciate every situation. Whether it’s good or bad, I say thank you … That approach changed everything. I don’t know why it is, but it relieved all the pressure off my shoulders. I feel so confident. I feel really aggressive. I feel like my A game’s on point.

14. Where’s your favorite spot to compete on the circuit?

I would say Hungary. I like Hungary. Whenever I go to Hungary, I always try to go one week earlier so I can train because Hungary, they have one of the best men’s epee squads. Even though they didn’t qualify, they have very strong fencers, so 1-12, they all fence hard. I like to go there because the moment that I get there, I feel like everybody is trying to kill in fencing and it kind of wakes me up. Every time I go to practice, I gotta to fight, fight, fight and not take a second for granted. I don’t know what it is, but I always do well in Hungary. I think only one time in 2016 I didn’t do well … but other than that, I always do well in Hungary. That’s my go-to spot.

15. If you weren’t a fencer, what sport would you want to play now?

Definitely basketball. Even though my friends sometimes they ask me, ‘Why did you choose fencing?’ I’m like, ‘Because that was chosen for me. I didn’t choose it.’ But basketball is my second sport that I like the most. I’m always watching basketball. Always. We have a group chat and I’m always talking about LeBron James and things like that.

16. So what’s your favorite team?

Of course the Los Angeles Lakers. I’ll tell you what, I’m a LeBron fan, so any team he plays, I will root for that team. I always say, some people are like a diehard team fan and a lot of my friends are Knicks fans …  I take a different approach. I’m a LeBron fan. I like winning and I would say athletes have more impact in a person than the team because a team can trade an athlete or sell an athlete or acquire a different athlete, but an athlete, I’m literally following everything they do, how they train, how they prepare their mind and I like to take that into consideration when it comes to fencing. The same mindset I try to always apply to myself and sometimes I look at LeBron James. He’s like 36. I’m 34 and I’m always trying to learn new ways to improve myself. And he’s one of the greatest and I take a lot of things that he says and put it into my game.

17. What is it about LeBron that you look up to?

Normally when you are a big figure in sports, you are going to have a lot of criticism. And the ability for him to handle criticism is amazing. I remember when I was coming up, I was winning NACs and fencing really well in America, but I couldn’t pass the first round in international and I was really frustrated because people are started saying, ‘Yeisser is only good in America. He doesn’t make second day in international.’

I was looking in interview for LeBron and he said, ‘You know, for my entire life, I’ve been always doubted that I would not be something, and every time I wake up, I remember all the naysayers and that’s my motivation.’ I took that as motivation to every time I’m on the strip, I used to think I gotta be like LeBron James. I gotta be like LeBron James. I know it’s kind of crazy thinking, but sometimes you borrow confidence from other athletes to approach it into yourself and sometimes seeing the way he plays when he gets really aggressive, I borrow that confidence into my game. When I’m fencing, I’m thinking I have to be aggressive, I have to be confident and the discipline that he has, I also admire that. I think this has been the year that I’ve been the most disciplined in my life.

18. I saw on Instagram you’ve mentioned more than once not being to be afraid to lose. Can you talk about that?

I mentioned earlier that I take a lot of advice from Peter. When I first came to America, I used to get really, really nervous for a competition. Peter used to come up to me and used to ask me, ‘Are you nervous?’ I’m like, ‘No, I’m not nervous.’ And Peter said, ‘Brother, you’re nervous,’ … And then I didn’t win. I was losing all the time and I got frustrated and then Peter called me and we had a long conversation. And he’s like, ‘Brother, it’s okay to be nervous.’ Once he told me that, it was a game changer because one thing that I used to do, I used to deny being nervous. And then once I learned to embrace it, game changer. Now when I’m nervous, I’m happy. I’m like, ‘Wow, I feel nervous. I feel good.’ You’re supposed to be nervous. Everybody’s nervous in here, which means the winners are the ones that are handling the pressure the most, so you need to learn to handle pressure. When I’m not nervous, I’m concerned. I need to be nervous because that means I’m aware that I need to bring my A game.

19. That’s a very unique mindset to have, that you can’t win all the time?

Peter told me one time, ‘You lose more than you win.’ And it’s true. A lot of people only post when they’re winning. Yeah, that’s cool for the fans … but there’s always two sides of the coin. You have to learn from winning and learn from losing, and people only want to talk about winning, which is great, but it’s not real …  [I] was taking a lesson [with Akhi Spencer-El] and I asked him, ‘What’s the biggest difference between Aldo Montano and [Aron] Szilagyi, the Hungarian fencer?’ And he told me Szilagyi is not afraid to lose. He does crazy things and he lives with the result later. I was like, ‘You know what? I like that. I might print a T-shirt with that and put it on my chest, not afraid to lose. I still gonna do it.

20. Have you been doing a lot of cooking in quarantine?

Yeah. I cook all the time. When I was in Cuba, my grandmother, she used to go to Havana and my grandfather used to be a carpenter, so he bought the food, he bought the meat, bought the rice, bought the beans and said, ‘Okay, you’re not doing anything. Why don’t you cook?’ I said, ‘I don’t know how to cook. I never cooked in my life.’ He said: ‘Well, remember when your grandmother cooks and just try to do the same.’

So I started inventing whatever I had, and from that point on, I started falling in love with cooking because I was 14 or 15 years old and I was cooking for my grandfather while he was working as a carpenter. I had to make sure that the food was ready at 12 and that dinner was ready by 6:30 or 7 and that taught me how to cook, and then I started asking questions to my aunt how to cook, how to make rice, how to make beans, things like that.

And then in the pandemic, I was like, ‘You know what? Let’s at least do something interesting.’ So I started cooking and watching a lot of YouTube videos and then buy a book on cooking and I follow the British chef, Gordon Ramsey, and I always try to on the weekend do something different. One day I might do some streak or I might do some shrimp or fish, something different. I like cooking.

21. What’s your favorite dish to make?

Before this pandemic, my favorite meal was chicken. I used to make Cuban chicken with, in America they call in dirty rice. That was my favorite one before the pandemic. Now, I’m able to make, I wouldn’t say the best, but shrimp with garlic and rice. That’s my favorite so far. And also I do a lot of roasted salmon and I’m really, really good at that one, but shrimp with garlic I think is my favorite for now.

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