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Friday, February 14
Perez is favored to win triple jump Saturday

Associated Press

LOS ANGELES -- Yuliana Perez has the second-longest triple jump ever among American women -- quite a leap to prominence for someone stranded in Cuba less than three years ago.

Perez is favored to win her specialty Saturday night in the 43rd annual Los Angeles Invitational track meet at the Sports Arena.

A victory would be another step toward her announced goal of representing the United States in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

"That's been my dream for a long time," the 21-year-old Perez said. "I plan to do whatever it takes to get there."

She's done quite a bit just to get where she is now.

Born in Tucson, Ariz., Perez was the child of parents deported from Cuba by Fidel Castro in a so-called humanitarian gesture to rid the island nation of undesirables.

When she was three, Perez's mother was shot to death in San Diego. She has no idea what became of her father and has no desire to find out.

She was sent to live with her grandmother in Cuba, where she developed into a track star and made the national team. But she refused to renounce her American citizenship and in 1999 was dropped from the Cuban team. National officials told her they considered her likely to defect if she left the country.

With financial help from the Swiss Embassy, Perez fled Cuba in 2000 and returned to Tucson, where she worked as a waitress and made her way to the track team at Pima Community College.

"After all her years in Cuba, she didn't speak much English," recalled Pima coach John Radspinner. "But she was an exceptional athlete, so we gave her a scholarship."

In her first international competition in 2001, Perez finished fourth in the women's triple jump at the World University Games in Beijing.

She not only won the U.S. outdoor title at Stanford last year, she had the four best marks of the meet, including the winning effort of 46 feet, 7 inches.

One of her goals this year is to shatter the national record of 47-3 set by Sheila Hudson in 1995.

In the next few weeks, Perez will make a choice of a four-year college to attend next fall. Southern California, Louisiana State and Arizona are in the running.

Tom Feeney, an investments manager in Tucson, and his wife, Cathy Bermudez, took Perez under their wing shortly after Yuliana arrived from Cuba and have been the steadying influences of her life.

"I consider them my parents," Perez said.

Kenyan miler Bernard Lagat is the featured male athlete scheduled to compete in the Los Angeles Invitational, second longest-running indoor track meet in the country behind only New York's Millrose Games, staged for the 96th time last weekend.

Lagat has won the Los Angeles Invitational mile the past four years. A fifth triumph would enable him to break the meet record he shares with Steve Scott for most consecutive victories in the event. Scott won every year from 1989-92.

The second fastest outdoor miler in history, Lagat has a degree in information systems from Washington State, where he won NCAA indoor and outdoor titles.

Over the years, 105 Olympic gold medalists have competed in the Los Angeles Invitational. Jon Drummond, who captured gold as the leadoff leg on the winning U.S. 4x100-meter relay team in Sydney in 2000, is favored to win the 55-meter dash.

USC cornerback Darrell Rideaux, a starter for the Trojans' Orange Bowl champions, is among Drummond's opponents.

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