Raphael working side horse
From Havana, Cuba. A graduate student in business, he’s one of the top gymnasts in this hemisphere aptained Cuba’s Olympic team at World Olympics 1948, 1952, and 1956 . . . He spark plugged FSU to win over Swedish Olympic team in 1954 recording one of the highest scores ever in winning side horse.
Raphael dimounts the high bar
The Genteel & Debonair Professor
by Bruce A. Davis
Having coached and taught at Miami Dade College for over thirty years, I marveled at the Cuban culture and, in particular, the athletic ability of Cuban gymnasts. I had heard about Raphael Lecuona and his brother for years from many of the Florida State gymnasts as well as from my coach, Abie Grossfeld; so I was not surprised when I met him personally in Las Vegas in December 2004 when the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame was roasting another one of my coaches, Jamile Ashmore, a three time Pan American Games gold medalist. I sat down with Raphael a few months later for an interview at the third annual reunion of the Florida State men’s gymnastics team held at Alligator Point Memorial Day weekend a few days before his 77th birthday. I not only found a great gymnast, but a distinguished, handsome, highly educated, energetic individual who I call the “genteel and debonair professor”.
Most important, America would have missed him completely if it were not for one important decision he made in 1953. While living in Cuba, Raphael was single, handsome and athletic. He was looking forward to being promoted to head cashier at the “Romeo and Juliet” cigar factory in Cuba after the death of his boss. He was surprisingly asked to train another man for the head cashier’s job at the factory. With no chance of advancement, Raphael decided to go to the United States.
Already an established gymnast, Raphael had competed in the 1948 London Olympics, the 1951 Pan American Games in Buenos Aires and the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games. Raphael recalled his initial contact with American Olympian Bill Roetzheim at the ‘51 Pan Am Games about attending Florida State and the offer of an athletic scholarship by Dr. Hartley Price during the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.
Lecuona enrolled at the University of Havana as per Hartley’s instruction and then transferred to Florida State University. He arrived in Tallahassee by bus on September 13th, 1953 with five dollars in his pocket. He took a student loan and then received some money from his athletic scholarship on October 1st. He temporarily lived with Carmine and Joe Regna, the twin gymnasts from New Jersey, and ate their cooked spaghetti for a couple weeks and learned to wash and dry dishes after the meal; a new experience for the Cuban. Lecuona competed for FSU for four years and served as team co-captain in 55-56.
Educationally, Raphael is proud of the fact that he passed an English comprehension test on his own especially when he could not speak English upon arrival in Tallahassee. He achieved his bachelor’s degree in business, his master’s degree in international politics and his doctoral degree in political science. He has written essays for the international Journal of War and Peace; and, his essay in Horowitz’s 1997 book, Cuban Communism, called Cuba & Nicaragua Ties to Communism, among others. He prides himself on the fact that, as a Cuban, he spent a thirty year career at Texas A & M International University of Laredo, Texas; teaching American students about American government. He once got his classes attention by performing a difficult two arm balance called a “planche” on his desk before his lecture on American government.
He helped Fernando, his older brother and a 1948 Cuban Olympian, matriculate to FSU and compete. He married an Oklahoma lady in 1957 raising two sons, Mark, a CPA, and Miguel, a Nextel employee, both Texas residents. He divorced, and then married Diana, an Argentinean, with whom he recently celebrated his 25th wedding anniversary. Of course, his Uncle is Ernesto Lecuona, the great Cuban composer who gave us Malaguena, the Breeze and I, among other great musical compositions.
He spent summers working as a Stevedore in New York (Pier 19) with help from American Olympian Eddie Scrobe who had union connections and spent Christmas vacations in Sarasota at the National Gymnastics Clinic (NGC). His first year in school he asked Hartley if he could go home to Cuba for the Christmas holidays rather than attend the NGC. Price refused his request. Diplomatically, Raphael asked Hartley to put his situation to a vote by the team to which Hartley agreed. The team voted to let Raphael go home to Cuba and visit his parents.
Raphael, was the 1951 Pan American Games side horse gold medalist, and his brother, now 79 and retired in Daytona Beach; excelled on the side horse event (now called the pommel horse). Side horse is often considered the most difficult of all gymnastic events.
When it was his turn to speak at Jamile Ashmore’s roast, I couldn’t help notice how Raphael pulled out his well-composed notes and spoke eloquently about his former roommate and teammate at Florida State. I thought of how well he had prepared his remarks in comparison to other speakers... And then I thought, of course, he is a Renaissance man. He is the genteel and debonair professor. Then I thought to myself, Raphael, thank you for deciding to come to America! You have done so much for all those students with whom you shared your knowledge. It is a pleasure to know you!
Bruce A. Davis, Professor Emeritus Miami Dade College, Director of Flip Flops & Fitness gymnastics school of Apollo Beach.
Publisher of www.Letstalkgymnastics.com Can be contacted at: (813)641-3375 or Brucedavis56@verizon.net