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Telling a story you couldn’t make up

Citizen Staff

Frank Deford, perhaps the nation’s greatest sportswriter, comes to Tucson to hear the improbable tale of Pima Community College jumper Yuliana Perez



Wins and losses and Big Game foofaraw are fun, but these are not what attracts a talent like Frank Deford to sports in general, and to Tucson in particular.

It’s the flame of human interest.

Yuliana Perez, for example. She’s the world-class triple jumper who dropped out of the sky one day, and into the lap of Pima Community College track coach John Radspinner.

Deford, correspondent on HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel,” was in Tucson this week to film a segment on the young Olympic hopeful, and to visit with Radspinner and a bus driver named Guillermo Diaz, who figures prominently in the miraculous story.

It will air on Tuesday, May 18, at 10 p.m. (Tucson time).

Perez, 23, was a Cuban expatriate working as a waitress at the Lodge on the Desert, 306 N. Alvernon Way.

She was living in Marana with Cruz Olivarria, a social worker. One day Perez built up enough courage to go exploring on her own and caught the wrong bus. Enter Diaz, operator of Sun Tran No. 3, running from Pima College’s West Campus to the East Campus.

Sensing Perez was confused, Diaz struck up a conversation in Spanish.

“When I found out she was an athlete, I took her to Pima,” said Diaz, a close friend of PCC sprint coach Mario Peña.

She wound up enrolling at the two-year school.

“The first time Yuliana jumped for us, she was four feet ahead of the women’s record at Pima,” Radspinner said. “In a short time, she was seven feet ahead, in the 46-foot range.”

That’s only part of the story Deford is putting together.

Perez’s father, Jose Carlos Martinez Viallez,was one bad dude. He was on a boatload of Cubans shipped to this country by Fidel Castro, who felt a need to spread some goodwill around by dumping mental patients and prisoners.

Viallez went straight to prison in Atlanta. Nobody knows where he is now.

“He sort of disappeared,” Deford said.

Meanwhile, her mom and a couple of brothers were sent to Tucson, where Yuliana was born.

When she was 3, they moved to Las Vegas and then to San Diego, where they lived in a tiny apartment.

“One morning, there was a ruckus,” Perez recalled in a Citizen interview in 2001. “My mom crossed a hallway and stuck her head out a window. She was shot and killed” in an apparent drive-by attack.

Perez was in foster care for two years, then she and her siblings were handed over to their maternal grandmother in Havana. Although an amazing young athlete, she was held back in competition when Cuba discovered she was born in Tucson and held dual citizenship.

With the help of a friend, writer Tom Mueller, she worked through the Swiss Embassy in Havana to obtain a passport. She returned to Tucson in February 2000 and our part of the odyssey began.

These are Frank Deford-type stories. One of the most honored writers in the U.S., he is best known for his work with Sports Illustrated. In addition to “Real Sports,” he appears on National Public Radio each week on “Morning Edition,” and his NPR column is posted on SI.com.

Deford has won more honors than you could count. He is a member of the Hall of Fame of the National Association of Sportscasters and Sportswriters. Six times he was voted Sportswriter of the Year.

The American Journalism Review has cited him as the nation’s best sportswriter, and twice he was honored as Magazine Writer of the Year.

The University of Missouri and Northeastern University have presented him awards. He has won an Emmy and a Cable Ace award for his television work.

“Since Lana Turner was found on a stool in a drugstore, sport has been better about Cinderella stories than any other field,” Deford said.

“Yuliana’s story is so bizarre. The things that have happened to her – dad in jail, mom gets shot, the bus driver in Tucson – it’s just a drumroll of fascination.”

Perez is living in Fayetteville, Ark., and training for the Olympic Trials in July in Sacramento, Calif.

She is being coached by Arkansas assistant track and field coach Richard Booth and competing unattached.

“I interviewed her last week in New York,” Deford said. “We spent the day together, then went to Cuba for filming. Try to get from Havana to Tucson in one day! It ain’t easy.

“We got up at 5 a.m., took a plane to Cozumel, went through customs there, then to Cancun, to Houston, to Phoenix and finally, drove to Tucson. Whew! I was exhausted.”

But for a story like Perez’s, it’s worth it.

Perez training in Arkansas for shot at Olympics



Coaching Yuliana Perez was a life-altering experience for John Radspinner, but both knew she needed to leave Tucson to realize her Olympic dream.

Radspinner, a mild-mannered mathematics teacher at Rincon/University High School, was the head track and field coach at Pima Community College during Perez’s meteoric rise from obscurity in Tucson to America’s premiere women’s triple jumper.

“Because of Yuliana, I have gone all over the world,” he said. “I have gone to China, Scotland, Spain and Canada … places I never would have gone to on my own.”

Perez is now training at the University of Arkansas as an unattached athlete, preparing for the U.S. Olympic Trials in July.

“I do miss Tucson. I have been back to visit,” Perez said. “I needed a good jumps coach and you did not have that in Tucson. I feel pretty good about my training, even more so because this is an Olympic year.”

Perez, the two-time defending USA Track and Field national champ in the triple jump, spent last fall as a student at the Univeristy of Arizona on a track and field scholarship.

She left UA after the end of semester and moved to Fayetteville, Ark., to train for the Olympics in Athens under the tutelage of Dick Booth, an assistant coach at Arkansas in charge of field events.

Perez finished second as an unattached athlete to Tiombe Hurd in the triple jump in February at the USA Indoor national championships meet in Boston with a jump of 45 feet, 2.5 inches

“I have never jumped well indoors because it has never been my focus,” Perez said. “Thank God for the outdoor season. I am always ready for the outdoors. I have been training everyday.”

Perez will begin her outdoor competition May 9 at the Modesto Invitational in Modesto, Calif.

She is currently ranked 24th in the world by the International Association of Athletics Federation.

“Her training is going really well,” Booth said. “She is stronger than she has ever been. She has been consistently jumping around 45 feet. We are focusing toward the Olympic Games.”

Perez was born July 21, 1981, at Tucson Medical Center, but she spent much of her early years in Cuba.

She won the USA national championship in the outdoor triple jump in 2002 at 47-7.25. She won in 2003 at 46-8.25.

Perez will compete for a slot at the U.S. Olympic Trials from July 9-18 in Sacramento, Calif. She is considered almost a shoo-in to make the team as a triple jumper.

“I think coach Booth’s plan for her is a good plan,” Radspinner said. “I think he will have her peaked and ready to by go by the Olympic Trials.”

Radspinner, whose contract at Pima was not renewed last July, talked about his former star athlete in an interview Monday at Pima with legendary sports journalist Frank Deford, who was in town as part of a film crew for the HBO’s “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel.”

Perez will be the subject of a profile on “Real Sports” on the night of May 18.

“Unless she gets hurt, she is going to the Olympics,” Radspinner said.


Frank Deford (left) interviews ex-Pima Community College track coach John Radspinner for an HBO show on Yuliana Perez.

Citizen file photo by FRANCISCO MEDINA

Her mother shot dead, her convict father missing, Yuliana Perez, 23, was a Cuban expatriate working as a waitress before her career took off.

Citizen file photo by XAVIER GALLEGOS

Yuliana Perez with bus driver Guillermo Diaz. A conversation in 2000 with Perez led Diaz to drive her to Pima Community College, where her athletic odyssey began.


Deford: “Yuliana’s story is so bizarre. The things that have happened to her … it’s just a drumroll of fascination.”

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