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Wrestling-loving train conductor creates homemade competition in Cuba

| Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018, 7:24 a.m.
In this Jan. 23, 2018 photo, a referee prepares to pound on the mat if a wrestler's back touches the mat during the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 23, 2018 photo, a referee prepares to pound on the mat if a wrestler's back touches the mat during the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 22, 2018 photo, young wrestlers train in the street during the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. In this neighborhood, a wrestling-loving local man created a homegrown, neighborhood-backed program to support aspiring wrestlers from Cuba's economically struggling provinces. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 22, 2018 photo, young wrestlers train in the street during the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. In this neighborhood, a wrestling-loving local man created a homegrown, neighborhood-backed program to support aspiring wrestlers from Cuba's economically struggling provinces. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 23, 2018 photo, two young, visiting wrestlers walk to the home that's hosting them during the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. Participants lodged with some 70 families around the neighborhood. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 23, 2018 photo, two young, visiting wrestlers walk to the home that's hosting them during the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. Participants lodged with some 70 families around the neighborhood. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 22, 2018 photo, young wrestlers are weighed by an instructor during the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. The more than 150 young wrestlers were divided into teams from across the country, with Santiago province's team taking the championship. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 22, 2018 photo, young wrestlers are weighed by an instructor during the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. The more than 150 young wrestlers were divided into teams from across the country, with Santiago province's team taking the championship. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 22, 2018 photo, local children hold signs carrying the names of the provinces where young wrestlers, behind them, travelled from, as they hold the inauguration ceremony for the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. Even though it's not officially sanctioned, the local government gave its implicit blessing by, for example, lending some equipment for the events. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 22, 2018 photo, local children hold signs carrying the names of the provinces where young wrestlers, behind them, travelled from, as they hold the inauguration ceremony for the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. Even though it's not officially sanctioned, the local government gave its implicit blessing by, for example, lending some equipment for the events. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 22, 2018 photo, shadows are cast on the gym wall during the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. Homemade bleachers weren't big enough to seat the hundreds of people who crammed in to watch the tournament. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 22, 2018 photo, shadows are cast on the gym wall during the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. Homemade bleachers weren't big enough to seat the hundreds of people who crammed in to watch the tournament. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 23, 2018 photo, young wrestlers stand still during a priest's prayer at the start of the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. 'We did it on the spur of the moment, in a pretty improvised way,' event organizer Heredia Marrero said. 'We didn't have referees or all the equipment we needed, but finally everyone got behind it.' (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 23, 2018 photo, young wrestlers stand still during a priest's prayer at the start of the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. 'We did it on the spur of the moment, in a pretty improvised way,' event organizer Heredia Marrero said. 'We didn't have referees or all the equipment we needed, but finally everyone got behind it.' (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 23, 2018 photo, a young wrestler is fanned off with a towel by his coach during the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. The event organizer, Leandro Heredia Marrero, was never a wrestler himself, but took a fervent interest in the sport after his sons wrestled in state programs. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 23, 2018 photo, a young wrestler is fanned off with a towel by his coach during the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. The event organizer, Leandro Heredia Marrero, was never a wrestler himself, but took a fervent interest in the sport after his sons wrestled in state programs. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 22, 2018 photo, girls parade a Cuban flag during the opening ceremony for the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. The tournament began with performances by local bands and circus performers, and the child participants dancing in a procession through the streets around the tournament site. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 22, 2018 photo, girls parade a Cuban flag during the opening ceremony for the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. The tournament began with performances by local bands and circus performers, and the child participants dancing in a procession through the streets around the tournament site. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 24, 2018 photo, Lidia Danger, second from right, and her husband Armando Castellano, far left, pose with the three young wrestlers from Cuba's Gramma province who they hosted at their home during the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. Youths attending the tournament stay with local families, who often depend on small donations to feed the extra mouths and entertain the kids during the seven-day tournament. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 24, 2018 photo, Lidia Danger, second from right, and her husband Armando Castellano, far left, pose with the three young wrestlers from Cuba's Gramma province who they hosted at their home during the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. Youths attending the tournament stay with local families, who often depend on small donations to feed the extra mouths and entertain the kids during the seven-day tournament. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 23, 2018 photo, young wrestlers from Cuba's eastern and central provinces take a break near local kids flying kites, during the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. The second Chicharrones tournament began in late January. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 23, 2018 photo, young wrestlers from Cuba's eastern and central provinces take a break near local kids flying kites, during the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. The second Chicharrones tournament began in late January. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 22, 2018 photo, young wrestlers train and rest at the gym before the start of the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. Events included freestyle, Greco-Roman wrestling and girls' events. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 22, 2018 photo, young wrestlers train and rest at the gym before the start of the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. Events included freestyle, Greco-Roman wrestling and girls' events. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 23, 2018 photo, Nalis Mendoza slices a tomato as she feeds her sons attending the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. Relatively small and short on resources, Cuba has long been an outsize power in amateur athletics, bringing back hundreds of Olympic and international medals in sports including boxing, track and field and wrestling. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 23, 2018 photo, Nalis Mendoza slices a tomato as she feeds her sons attending the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. Relatively small and short on resources, Cuba has long been an outsize power in amateur athletics, bringing back hundreds of Olympic and international medals in sports including boxing, track and field and wrestling. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 22, 2018 photo, local kids carry wood to use in the fire to cook food for the athletes attending the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 22, 2018 photo, local kids carry wood to use in the fire to cook food for the athletes attending the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 24, 2018 photo, couple Leandro Heredia Marrero, right, and his wife Leticia awaken at dawn three young wrestlers they are hosting at their home, during the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. Marrero started bringing children from across the country for wrestling training and a tournament two years ago, and dreams of creating a professional-quality wrestling school that can feed Cuban youths appetite for the sport. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 24, 2018 photo, couple Leandro Heredia Marrero, right, and his wife Leticia awaken at dawn three young wrestlers they are hosting at their home, during the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. Marrero started bringing children from across the country for wrestling training and a tournament two years ago, and dreams of creating a professional-quality wrestling school that can feed Cuban youths appetite for the sport. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 23, 2018 photo, volunteer nurse Elena Bandera Silega and Doctor Felix Ame Perez sit on the sidelines of the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. Local doctors and nurses volunteered their time to monitor the wrestlers' health and treat any injuries. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 23, 2018 photo, volunteer nurse Elena Bandera Silega and Doctor Felix Ame Perez sit on the sidelines of the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. Local doctors and nurses volunteered their time to monitor the wrestlers' health and treat any injuries. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 23, 2018 photo, people crowd a gym to watch the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. Homemade bleachers weren't big enough to seat the hundreds of people who crammed in to watch the tournament. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 23, 2018 photo, people crowd a gym to watch the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. Homemade bleachers weren't big enough to seat the hundreds of people who crammed in to watch the tournament. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 23, 2018 photo, young wrestlers train outside during the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. Unlike this grass-roots event, Cuba's sports programs are normally state-run, with talented children entering government programs early and spending their young adult lives in the arms of an official program that focuses their every minute on athletic glory. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 23, 2018 photo, young wrestlers train outside during the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. Unlike this grass-roots event, Cuba's sports programs are normally state-run, with talented children entering government programs early and spending their young adult lives in the arms of an official program that focuses their every minute on athletic glory. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 23, 2018 photo, referees, wrestlers and locals watch a wrestling match during the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 23, 2018 photo, referees, wrestlers and locals watch a wrestling match during the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 22, 2018 photo, neighbors dance during the inauguration of the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 22, 2018 photo, neighbors dance during the inauguration of the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 24, 2018 photo, young female wrestlers train at a gym for the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. A state school donated a wrestling mat, and neighbors cleaned, painted and repaired the gym where the tournament took place. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)
In this Jan. 24, 2018 photo, young female wrestlers train at a gym for the week-long student wrestling championship coined 'The truth of my neighborhood,' organized by locals in the Chicharrones neighborhood of Santiago, Cuba. A state school donated a wrestling mat, and neighbors cleaned, painted and repaired the gym where the tournament took place. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

SANTIAGO, Cuba — Relatively small and short on resources, Cuba has long been an outsize power in amateur athletics, bringing back hundreds of Olympic and international medals in sports including boxing, track and field and wrestling.

Its efforts have been entirely state-run, with talented children entering government programs early and spending their young adult lives in the arms of an official program that focuses their every minute on athletic glory.

But in the neighborhood of Chicharrones in the city of Santiago, a wrestling-loving train conductor named Leandro Heredia Marrero is trying to replicate that success without the help of the government in a homegrown, neighborhood-backed program to support aspiring wrestlers.

Two years ago, Heredia Marrero, 55, started bringing children to Chicharrones for training and a tournament. The youths stay with local families, who often depend on small donations to feed the extra mouths and entertain the kids during the seven-day tournament. Local doctors and nurses volunteer their time to monitor the wrestlers' health and treat any injuries.

“We did it on the spur of the moment, in a pretty improvised way,” Heredia said. “We didn't have referees or all the equipment we needed, but finally everyone got behind it.”

Heredia was never a wrestler himself, but developed a fervent interest in the sport after his sons wrestled in state programs. He was formally trained as a referee by local sports schools, like the other referees in the Chicharrones events.

The second Chicharrones tournament began in late January with performances by local bands and circus performers, and the child participants dancing in a procession through the streets around the tournament site. Even though it's not officially sanctioned, the local government gave its implicit blessing by, for example, lending some equipment for the events.

The more than 150 young wrestlers were divided into teams from various provinces across Cuba and the Chicharrones neighborhood itself, with Santiago province's team taking the championship.

Events included freestyle, Greco-Roman wrestling and girls' events. Participants lodged with some 70 families around the neighborhood. A state school donated a wrestling mat, and neighbors cleaned, painted and repaired the gym where the tournament took place. Homemade bleachers weren't big enough to seat the hundreds of people who crammed in to watch the tournament.

Heredia, who has been conducting trains for 38 years, says his dream is creating a professional-quality wrestling school that can feed Cuban youths' appetite for the sport.

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