07/27/2010 04:44 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Get to Cuba Legally

2010-07-19-Picture1.pngCompete in the Masters Cycling Championships in Cuba

Ten years ago, I went to Cuba to enter an Olympic distance triathlon even though I hated to swim, thought biking 25 miles was endless and could think of a lot better things to do than run six miles. I signed up for the triathlon only because it was a legal way to get into Cuba on an athlete's visa. (I'm much too much of a coward to take the risk of getting slapped with a $10,000 fine if caught entering by the American government).

Not only did the trip turn me into a triathlete, but I was able to experience Cuba in a personal and unique way, training side by side with the Cuban athletes. Thirty-four Americans had come with me, and twenty Cubans planned to enter the event. The Cubans were rib-thin and looked starving. They didn't ride the latest titanium bikes or trod along in cushion-spring sneakers as we did. They didn't have money to eat meals in a restaurant, and they were never served meat or fish. The government gave them a very small stipend and their meals were even smaller. But they had much more heart than we did. They really needed to win because it meant extra money. A few dreamed of doing the Kona Ironman, and even though they easily would have qualified by time, they'd never have been able to afford the airfare, let alone hotels and meals. On the other hand, we Americans had the means to buy the latest and best equipment and gear.

Mike Frysse, our cycling coach who is the executive director of Pan American Solidarity and president of the Master's Commission, has made 21 trips to Cuba and knows the ropes. He told us to bring anything we could spare: used bikes, shorts, T-shirts, sneakers, socks, goggles and swimsuits. Frysse took care of all the overweight baggage fees. My happiest time on the trip was not getting my medal, but seeing the Cuban athletes light up when we gave them our gently used gear. The best part was having the opportunity to train with these dedicated and generous Cuban athletes. One day I was struggling, trying to peddle up a steep hill when the top Cuban cyclist rode alongside, put his hand on my back, and literally pushed me all the way up to the top of the hill. Ahhhhh. Happiness.

A few people came along with no intention of doing the race, but simply because they wanted to see Cuba. (Doing the race is not a prerequisite). Yes, we did swim, bike and run clinics, but we also had plenty of time to tour Havana and any other part of Cuba (if you didn't mind missing training). My two cents? Get to Cuba now, before it's legal for Americans and everything turns into glitzy hotels. Right now, Havana looks as though a bomb hit it and all the facades of the buildings are crumbling. But even this has its own charm. Everywhere, are American cars of the 1950s -- some rusting hulks that seem to be jerry rigged with gaffer tape. Maybe the Cubans have no material goods, but they sure have plenty of heart, not to mention round-the-clock music. No matter when or where you go, there are bands playing in the streets or on porches or in clubs.

My triathlon was more than ten years ago, but I can still hear the sound of those Buena Vista Social Club-like bands jamming in the streets, see the waves crashing to shore at el Malecon and feel the Cuban champion cyclist's hand guiding me up the hill. I can even smell the hand-rolled cigar smoke wafting down the street. So my two cents is, if you want to go to Cuba legally, take advantage now.

Go with the Pan American Masters Cycling Championships, which will take place in Havana September 17th-26 (men and women, road and track, ages 35 and up). Just like my trip, this is being run by Mike Frysse and includes round trip airfare from Miami to Havana, Cuban visa, medical insurance (required by the Cuban government), hotel, food, beverages, entry fee, Masters National Team clothing, and all related transportation in Cuba. Cost: $2,595.00 per person, double occupancy. (Single occupancy is an additional $200.00). The only requirement is you need a 2010 U.S. Cycling Federation license (this is simple -- go online and bingo, you've got it). If you need more answers, get in touch with Fraysse. (845) 856-3335; I am almost ready to do it again -- and this time, I wouldn't even have to swim or run!