Fighting his corner

Olympic glory, suicidal thoughts, Buddhism and now working behind bars: it’s been a strange life for Nicholas Cruz Hernandez since defecting from Cuba but he’s still managed to keep on smiling
Some days the gym was filled with the swish of leather on leather. Others, when Nicholas Cruz Hernandez would invite some Cuban acquaintances over to waste away the hours with recollections of their homeland, the clunk of dominos would reverberate around the place. But most of the time there was just the silence that tortured him. It was then he could hear his thoughts and they had no reason to be kind.

Just four years earlier, the coach was a national celebrity. He had been the mysterious, gangly figure people called Black Paddy and was behind the national treasures brought back from the Barcelona Olympics. He was warm and friendly and successful and everyone wanted a piece of him. But everyone quickly forgot and by 1996 he was living in a makeshift quarters at the back of the gym on the South Circular Road with little more than a temporary bed and cooker. He could handle the mild poverty but couldn’t cope without what he left behind for this lonely life.

One night he picked up a rope he found lying next to one of the rings. He wandered out to the door, took a look at the trees and picked out the biggest branch. “I thought in my mind what it was going to be like when they saw me hanging from it. Then I was thinking will I leave something in writing, telling them not to blame anyone, that it was my own decision. I wanted to look inside myself and see if this was more than talk in my head. And it was. It was in my heart to do it. I had absolutely nothing left. This was it. The end.”

Nicholas Cruz Hernandez first stepped off the plane on 4 May, 1988 and expected the worst and the best from Ireland. Instead he got the best and the worst. After the Irish Amateur Boxing Association had asked for help, Cuba answered and sent the head of their Higher Institute for Physical Education. He awaited racism and tiptoed his way onto Dame Street but slowly gained confidence, wandered over O’Connell Bridge and ended up in a bar chattering away to the locals. He was overwhelmed by the friendliness but later stunned by the sporting rubble he found instead of the top-class facilities he had grown up with.

His task was to help prepare the team for the Seoul Games early that autumn. At one stage he took them to Kerry for a training camp but found nothing but a ring on the ground floor of the hotel. In the end he borrowed a sledgehammer and tyre from a nearby yard and used them for cardio and strength work; he smashed rocks and used the smaller pieces as dumbbells; he used trees for chin-ups; and, long before Ger Loughnane, he had his team doing squats up and down the dunes on a nearby beach. Then he went looking for a masseuse to the amusement of higher powers.

“The boxers were great. So proud. The fighting Irish. But I sat with the president of the association, Felix Jones, Lord rest him, and I asked him about vitamins and he was looking at me as if to say, ‘What are you talking about?’ In the end Cuba boycotted the Games and they didn’t want me to go and that was hard because I’d built up such a bond with the guys. They believed in me.”

Four years later he finally got his chance, even if it very nearly slipped away. When the team were staying in the Olympic Village in Barcelona, the boxers found a window above the door to the Irish area and started throwing water at the athletes coming in and out. Sonia O’Sullivan was first. A while later Michelle Smith came out and ran for cover but slipped and cut her leg. Pat Hickey, head of the Olympic Council of Ireland, called the fighters and Hernandez in for a meeting and warned them if there was another incident, they’d be sent home before a punch was thrown.

“They were just bored but after that meeting I took the lads upstairs and said there’s no way we are going to throw this away. There was a place where all the boxers trained but everyone was there so we set up an area on the ground floor of where we were staying. I was getting our boys up at six to train and I had a lot of complaints from the equestrian team saying they couldn’t sleep. It was funny because by the end of it there was no one left competing but the boxers. All these people that were complaining were watching us training and wouldn’t give us any space. We were the guys.”

When Hernandez returned to Cuba shortly after helping Wayne McCullough to silver and Michael Carruth to gold, even Castro was talking about him. His family presumed he was a millionaire after he made news across continents and asked how much he had received. He told them he got a few hugs and plenty of satisfaction. They laughed and asked him to be serious. He was. Felix Jones had promised him money but he never saw a single penny. Yet for some reason, when Ireland came calling again, he left everything behind.


It was 7 March, 1996 and Hernandez was giving a seminar to coaches and boxers in Puerto Rico. He had done too good a job in Barcelona and his bosses were happier to send him to a fighting wasteland rather than these shores. Before he’d left for the nearby Caribbean islands he’d told his wife if he didn’t come back he’d be in Ireland. She cried. He still doesn’t know why he muttered those words because he had no plans to defect.

“On the last day of classes there, I went too early. I was the only one there and I remembered I had a number in my pocket of one of the secretaries in the institute. I called and she said a fax came. She gave me the phone number on it. It was from Ireland so I called and it was the IABA who asked could I prepare the Irish for the Atlanta Olympics. The president of the Cuban federation was in Puerto Rico for a meeting and I told him, asked for my passport. He said no. I knew that meant if I went back to Cuba my travelling was over.

“So I went looking for the bags and I said to the other coach, would you stand as a witness, that I haven’t taken anything else. He knew what I was doing and said there’s no chance I’d find the passport. When I stuck my hands in one of the side pockets I found a brown envelope with three passports, he couldn’t believe it. There was a bit of a drama because the top guy wanted it back. He warned me I was defecting and that was five years of a ban. I knew that but I didn’t believe it. It didn’t seem true.”

The next day he was in Ireland. He had been married for 10 years to Maria Christina. His daughter Laura was seven. His son Nicholas jnr was one. Most days here he’d walk to a local post office with a letter in his hand, knowing that it would be intercepted before it ever reached them. Every night he’d be woken by nightmares. By 1998 he had grown into a dark shadow of his former self. A member of the IABA noticed, took Cruz to his house and told him to try and call his wife again. Finally he got through.

Nicholas, your sister has been ringing here with messages for you,” she alerted him.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Your father, he died. He was in hospital for six days.”

“He was 96 and they were the only six days he spent in hospital. He had to leave the tobacco farm and live in the city and that killed him. I started applying for a visa to go over there and bury him but the reply came back that I had abandoned the mission and therefore couldn’t come back. I never found myself in a situation that I thought I was going to take my life but I had that rope ready and was looking at those two trees.”


Cruz is sitting in a pub in Phibsboro, his trademark smile slapped across his face and a thick Irish accent sneaking out with certain words. He’s just finished for the night in Mountjoy, teaching prisoners yoga and stress management through boxing. Before, he did it in Spike Island, St Patrick’s Institution and Portlaoise Prison. In all of them he used to tell inmates his story and how, while he could walk out the door, he was just like them, in an open prison. They listened and understood.

By 2001 he took on the role with the prison service full-time when his days came to an end with the Irish boxing team. It was that year he finally saw his ban from entering Cuba end but couldn’t get there on the salary the IABA were offering him. A young Bernard Dunne asked him one day just how much he made in the role and was taken aback by the answer of EUR15,000.

His road to mental recovery began soon after his father’s funeral. He met a Shaolin Monk in Dublin who had little English and was here all alone. He decided the monk was in a far more difficult situation than him and it was time he stopped feeling sorry for himself. The connection between the two went further. Cruz had bought a Buddha some years before for fun but the monk showed him the spiritual side and it helped him in his time of need.

“The prison work helped me too. I connected with people and felt like I had a purpose. In Portlaoise I met Dessie O’Hare. An amazing man, we did a lot of work together and became great friends. He was such a disciplined man, with that vow of silence. Nearly four years. I couldn’t believe. Great charisma. He studied a lot, learned a lot, superbly mastered yoga. I heard from people about things he did and I never asked him and was never concerned about that. I take people in the present time, I don’t judge anyone. Maybe he wants to change and needs help to change and I can be there. I feed on that.

“If I do something for someone and they are happy and I can bring a smile, then I feel great. They called him names, the ‘Border Fox’. I wasn’t interested. It was the same in St Patrick’s, I realised the help a lot of young people need. They need a friend and I know what that can be like having gone through so much here myself. There were times when I needed someone but I got through it, and I realise there is a plan for me. I used to bring the rope I thought about killing myself with to places like that. I split it and made it longer and used it to help guys learn to bob and weave and it was a reminder to me of where I had been.”

More recently, he lost the rope but there are other reminders. He still has the Buddha and in 2007, 15 years after helping Ireland feel so proud of itself in Barcelona, he got together enough money to buy a house in Portlaoise. Sometimes he walks around and feels the walls, making sure this is real and this is his. Other times he sits there in the quiet with a smile on his face.

He’s learned to deal with the silence. Just as he’s learned to accept the difficult path he’s chosen in life.

17 January 2010
Sunday Tribune

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