The Greco-Roman wrestler dreams of reaching the 130kg final at Tokyo 2020 and beating his friend and rival Mijaín López, a three-time Olympic champion
Five years ago, the life of Yasmani Acosta radically changed.
In 2015, without any opportunities to represent his native Cuba at the Olympic Games or at the best world competitions, he took advantage of a trip to Chile to stay in the country and never returned to the Caribbean island.
The escape meant that he couldn't return to his home nation for eight years, but this didn't bother him. He was determined to be successful in a sport which he had been training all his life and excels in: Greco-Roman wrestling.
"I didn't go to the Olympic Games because they only sent one wrestler per country and category and there was Mijaín (López), who is a triple Olympic champion - Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio 2016 - and has five world titles. He is the best in the world. In Cuba, I was always behind him," explained the now naturalised Chilean citizen.
Despite the situation, Acosta, who is 32, doesn't hold any kind of resentment against López, 38. On the contrary, they are friends and regularly keep in touch.
“I trained with him every day for nine years. I really appreciate him. But you have to understand the circumstances," he told Tokyo 2020.
© 2019 Tony Rotundo/AthletesAreWarriors.com
According to Acosta, in 2015 he was disappointed that he couldn't travel and compete internationally.
"I cried watching the Olympics, because I saw that there were many [athletes] whom I have already beaten," he recalled.
It was that frustration that led him to make the difficult decision to leave his native Cuba and his family to forge another path - which was not an easy one.
Not having secured a permit from Cuba to represent Chile, he was unable to participate in international competitions.
For two years, he fought to obtain permission from the Cuban government. All while he was also working as a security guard and couldn't train.
Finally, in 2017, thanks to the intermediation of the United World Wrestling (UWW), he was released to compete for Chile. Once with the permit, he was able to start training and competing internationally. He also moved to the Chile High-Performance Center, a sports complex located in Santiago.
In Chile and armed with this new opportunity, the results came. That same year, he won a series of medals, including a historic bronze at the 2017 World Championship in Paris, France.
At the beginning of 2018, he was granted Chilean nationality then in May, he made his debut at the Odesur Games as a full-fledged Chilean athlete and winning gold in the process.
“The truth is that it was difficult. When I got to the competition, I didn't know what attitude my Cuban colleagues were going to have with me and if they saw me as good or bad. But I arrived and I realised that they loved me as always. They hugged me. They asked me how I was doing - as if nothing had happened. That gave me strength. It was very nice," he remembered.
From there, Acosta has continued to amass victories.
In 2019, he won the bronze medal at the Lima 2019 Pan American Games. In the semi-finals, he met López, his compatriot, who beat him and eventually win gold in the final.
A childhood and adolescence dedicated to fighting
Acosta was part of the large Cuban boarding school of Greco-Roman wrestlers. The Caribbean island is known for generating some of the best fighters in recent years, starting with the unbeatable López.
But why is Cuba such a powerhouse in this sport? According to Acosta, there is a system in place that helps train and identify future talent from a very young age.
“In Cuba, there is a [training] structure that allows people to develop [in the sport]. There are EIDs, which are schools with a capacity of 500 people, for children from 9-to-16-years-old. They live there, they have food, coaches and everything. There is an EID in each of the 15 provinces of the country. So by having children training there all day, they reach a higher level," he explained.
"It is a great policy at the national level. You don't pay to be there. In the schools, there is a grassroots coach and they encourage children to play sports and begin to recruit them. There, they take them to a basic training centre, to find out their abilities. Those with a clear future are put into the EID."
Acosta is speaking from experience. He started in his hometown, Agramonte, when he was nine years old. At 13, he entered the provincial school in Matanzas. And at 17, he moved to Havana to join the youth national team. There he faced López for the first time.
He has a clear memory of his first match:
I remember he lifted me off the mat with one hand. I weighed little at that time -105kg - and he was very strong.
He was not yet a world or Olympic champion, but great results were already expected from him.
The Olympic Games, the ultimate goal
In recent years, Acosta has continued to train hard to achieve his great goal: the Olympic Games. It's something he has always dreamt of. Finally in March last year, he qualified for 2020 Pan American Wrestling Qualifier in Ottawa, Canada.
“It was not easy because a month before the competition, I injured my right abductor. I had to be very careful. Even my coach considered that I was not going to fight in the final. But I wanted to fight and return with the gold medal to Chile,” he explained.
And he did it. In the final, Acosta beat Brazilian Eduard Soghomonyan to secure his ticket to Tokyo 2020.
Immediately after that competition he returned to Santiago, where he had quarantined for fifteen days during which the news of the postponement of the Olympic Games due to the COVID-19 pandemic broke.
“Of course, at first I was very disappointed. But I understand the situation worldwide is very difficult. And if I think about it in a bit of a selfish way, now I have time to recover from my injury. Although, I faced other challenges," he added.
Among those challenges was being confined for more than five months, doing physical exercises in his room without being able to train against anyone. Even things like maintaining his weight, which is normally close to 140kg was difficult. But his Olympic dream keeps him going.
“I have given up many things to go to the Olympics, starting with being away from my country, my mother and my brother. But my dream is now closer than ever," he said with a mix of sadness and excitement.
Finally, next summer, it will be time for Tokyo.
The wrestler is among the favourites to win a medal in the 130kg category. But at some point he will have to face López. The Olympic legend is his rival and mentor and who has so far overshadowed him.
Will Tokyo finally be the place where the student defeats the teacher? Will there be a generational change? Will all the efforts to get to that point be worth it?
We'll have to wait until 2 August 2021 for answers.
Meanwhile, Acosta will be continuing preparations to give the best of himself when that moment arrives, a moment he has visualised so much and incessantly longs for.
Perhaps, this time, he will be the one to take López off the mat.