Bronze medalist credits C-N with providing grasp on future

 

It may be the best wrestling story since Jacob struggled with the Almighty 4,000 years ago. Whereas Jacob was left with a permanent limp, Lazaro Reinoso received an everlasting lift.

“There are so many things I owe Carson-Newman, I can’t describe it,” he said appreciatively. “Without Carson-Newman, I don’t know where I would have been today. “

By age five, Lazaro Reinoso had already dreamt of wrestling. By 13, he was the youngest member of Cuba’s national team. And less than a decade later, he stood in Barcelona with a bronze medal around his neck at the 1992 Olympic Games.

He had hoped for personal growth and the freedom to choose his path. One might think with such success, including world championships and besting the legendary John Smith, doors would have opened for the medalist when he got home. But, Lazaro said, his prospects were no better than before, nor was he to have a choice in his future. Thus began new goals, plans and the dream of getting away.

Some 18 months after earning the bronze, Lazaro packed it away with other personal items for a tournament trip to New Jersey with his national team. While clearing customs in Miami, he told an agent of his desire to stay in the United States and seek political asylum.

His first several months in South Florida in 1994 made it clear that the American Dream would not fall from the sky or be handed to him. While he knows "a ton" of young men who have fled Cuba, he says not very many seem to make it beyond a distant hope for something better.

For Lazaro, the flicker of an opportunity came more than halfway across the country, as coach for the University of Oklahoma’s international wrestling club. There he developed a close friendship with a Laotian wrestler, Naret Viravong '99, who would subsequently mention Lazaro’s name in a recruiting conversation with then Carson-Newman wrestling coach Don Elia.

"If you transfer," he told Viravong, "I will follow you."

The idea of a medal winner flying under the radar was difficult for the coach to believe. "I thought somebody was pulling my leg," said Elia, who coaches now at East Tennessee State University. Seeing a scratchy videotape of the Olympic medal match was all it took to issue an offer to Lazaro.

On the wrestling mat, he amassed a stellar collegiate wrestling resume, including winning a NCAA D-II National Championship, coming in second in the nation twice and being a four-time All-American. He invested at least as much effort academically, spending four hours per day his first year in Jefferson City as a C-N English Language Institute student.

"It was hard," he said, smiling. "My English was zero."

Understanding what it takes to make the most of an opportunity, Lazaro worked hard and earned a BA in Spanish in 2001. Now he teaches Spanish and coaches wrestling at Landmark Christian School in suburban Atlanta, where he lives with his wife, Alcira, and their daughter Minerva. He became a U.S. citizen three years ago this month.

"Maybe if I was living in Cuba, I wouldn't have a job -- no matter if you are an Olympic champion, or a medalist in the Olympics...the government doesn't care about that," he said.

Even with the availability of two languages, Lazaro repeatedly admits to having difficulty stating the significance of his alma mater's influence on his life. He credits chapel attendance and reading the Bible with leading him to the relationship he has with God. He says his teachers taught him how to teach and how to use his experience to make life better for others.

"It's amazing how one place can change your life... Carson-Newman transformed me into the person you see today."

— Mark Brown, University Relations