The Cubans are coming to the Windermere Cup.
The University of Washington announced Wednesday that the Cuba men’s and women’s national crews will compete May 7 in the 30th Windermere Cup on the Huskies’ rowing course through Seattle’s Montlake Cut.
Pending expedited processing of the visitors’ visas, it will be one of the only known times a Cuban national team has competed in the Pacific Northwest since the end of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba in 1961.
“It’s just historic,” UW national-champion men’s rowing coach Michael Callahan said Tuesday. “From the Soviet Union for the first Windermere Cup to having world champions such as Australia and Great Britain come here and now Cuba — it’s really cool.”
Windermere and the Huskies have long considered Cuba the last frontier of international teams competing in its signature regatta. The Windermere Cup has been held on the first Saturday each May in conjunction with the Seattle Yacht Club’s opening-day festivities for the region’s boating seasons since 1987.
That was the year former UW crew coach Bob Ernst, Windermere founder John Jacobi, school leaders and then- Congressman Norm Dicks worked diplomatic channels to bring the Soviet Union’s national crews to the first Windermere Cup.
Thanks to U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell’s help, the cup is coming full circle for its 30th anniversary with the Cubans.
“This is the biggest coup we’ve had for the Windermere Cup since getting the Soviets to come for the first one,” said Ernst, who was fired by the university in late November.
The Huskies have hosted national teams from China, Egypt, the former Czechoslovakia and elsewhere across the globe in past Windermere Cups. Ernst said he’s wanted to get Cuba “for 15, 20 years.”
Ernst thought he wouldn’t, not as long as its Communist leader Fidel Castro was alive.
The 89-year-old Castro is still there; his brother Raul is Cuba’s president. But in December 2014, President Barack Obama’s administration began some normalization of relations with Cuba. In July, Obama announced formal reestablishment of diplomatic relations. Each country opened embassies in the other’s capital.
But the United States trade embargo of Cuba in 1962 is still in place. That prohibits American and Cuban citizens from traveling and conducting commerce freely between the two countries.
That’s where Cantwell comes in.
In August, Cantwell was in Seattle hosting friends from Great Britain. They wanted to see the shell UW’s 1936 men’s varsity crew used to win the gold medal in front of Adolf Hitler at the Berlin Olympics — “The Boys in the Boat” from the recent, best-selling book. That boat hangs from the ceiling of the Windermere Dining Room at UW’s Conibear Shellhouse.
Cantwell and her guests got a tour from Ernst. Turns out, Cantwell’s mother is a neighbor of Ernst in Edmonds. At the end of the tour, Ernst asked if Cantwell could be of any help getting the Cubans to race in the Windermere Cup.
“Well, we’ll get right on it,” Ernst said Cantwell told him.
It wasn’t quite that simple.
Callahan noted “there’s no website, no directory” with names or contact information for the Cuban rowing teams. So the Huskies’ coach called Sam Ojserkis — his national-champion coxswain from a couple of years ago — last summer while Ojserkis was competing with the Cubans at the Pan American Games in Canada. Callahan told his former rower: “Hey, go find the Cuba coach and have him contact me.”
Ojserkis got back to Callahan with: “This guy doesn’t speak English. But he’s interested.”
Callahan then asked UW assistant women’s basketball coach Fred Castro, who speaks Spanish, to be the interpreter for a series of calls to the Cuban coach. That’s how Cuba agreed to make Pacific Northwest sporting history in May.
Cantwell’s communications director, Reid Walker, said the senator’s role will kick in once the Cuban rowers submit their visa applications. Cantwell’s office intends to help expedite, in any way it can, the visa process with the State Department in time for the Cubans to compete in the Windermere Cup.
As of Tuesday, the Cubans had not filed those visa applications, according to Walker.
“Definitely having Sen. Cantwell’s office behind this is helping make this happen,” Callahan said.
Exactly which Cubans come are a major consideration.
Last July, four Cuban rowers defected to the U.S. from a rowing competition at the Pan Am Games in St. Catherines, Canada, less than 15 miles from the border at Niagara Falls, New York. Cuba’s men’s soccer team also had four players defect last summer while it was playing in the Gold Cup tournament in North Carolina and Arizona.
Osvaldo Alonso, a Seattle Sounders midfielder, defected to the U.S. while he was competing in Houston with Cuba’s national soccer team in 2007. He slipped out the side door of a Walmart.
So the 20-some names on the Cuban traveling party need to be vetted to include only those perceived to have a relatively low flight risk.
Assuming that visa process goes as planned, UW and Windermere will have a visiting team fitting for the 30th anniversary of that historic first Windermere Cup.
“The Windermere Cup has a storied past of looking beyond politics to bring the best rowers to Seattle,” Windermere president OB Jacobi said.
“It started in 1987 when we brought rowers from the former Soviet Union to compete in the very first Windermere Cup, and it continues with us welcoming the Cuban national team 30 years later.”
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle