HAVANA (AP) — In a wrestling suit the colors of the U.S. flag, 8-year-old Yodimiler Arias grapples with a classmate in the scorching heat of a Havana afternoon.
About 20 children are learning to wrestle in the park in Old Havana. When asked why they chose wrestling in baseball-loving Cuba, they shout in unison: "To be like Mijain Lopez!"
Lopez has won two Olympic gold medals in Greco-Roman wrestling, as well as five world championships, and is one of Cuba's most heralded and popular athletes.
Under the watchful eye of their teacher, former wrestler Michael Guerra, the children run, do squats and practice pins and other moves. Some are barefoot while others wear sandals or tennis shoes.
"Have fun, play," Guerra, 27, tells the children so they don't get bored and come back each day after school for more training.
The Kid Chocolate hall — named after Cuba's first world boxing champion — where they normally train is closed for repairs, so Guerra moved the classes to a nearby park with flamboyan trees. Because he wanted the children to practice on mats, he also asked the neighborhood sports director about using the local indoor gym and was given permission to do so for two days.
In the park, the children's laughter mixes with the honking of car horns and the conversations of passersby.
Parents look on, afterward helping clean up, carry supplies or collect money for transportation.
Maibel Arias doesn't miss any of her son Yodimiler's classes. "He likes it and I want to help him with his passion," she said.
She said the American flag wrestling suit was sent by her cousin in the United States.
Salvador Frometa, 7, has a suit given to him by his grandmother in Spain, but saves it for competitions. His mother, Daylebis Chapi, says she suffers a bit watching her child in combat but comes every day nonetheless. "It helps him to be disciplined, I am happy that this is his passion."
The children are candidates to enter the Sports Initiation School, the first stage of sports training in Cuba, and specialize in wrestling.
Brian Rojas, 11, and Yeney Pedroso, 14, know what they want from wrestling. They say they want "to be someone in life and travel the world" like their hero.