Richmond restaurant owner swam for his freedom

Posted at 8:34 PM, Jul 23, 2013
and last updated 2014-12-17 15:35:33-05

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) - People working or living in downtown Richmond may see him each day around lunchtime. Since 1996, Tico Sanchez has served his signature sandwiches and wraps to hungry customers at the corner of 12th and Marshall Streets.

Ask Sanchez about his life and he'll tell you he couldn’t picture himself anywhere else. In fact, it's a life he dreamed of living long ago. A life he swam for more than two days to reach.

Sanchez was born under the heavy hand of Fidel Castro’s Communist Cuba and says his prospects of a thriving an independent life there were slim.

“What is the point to live in the country that I don’t have the freedom to speak?”

But he realized trying to escape his homeland could mean decades in prison or even death.

The Cuban military treated those who tried defecting with contempt. Tico was willing to take the chance and risk everything, but that would mean leaving behind his loved ones and what little he had.

“It was about me and my family. What can I do for them. How can I get them a better life.”

Tico would follow in the wake of his younger brother, Kenny, who at 17 attempted swimming to the US military base in Guantanamo Bay several miles away.

One evening in early February of 1994, the 23-year-old Tico tells his mother he was leaving to visit relatives. He would not return.

He could not tell his parents his intentions. If they knew, his mother and father could be jailed. "I look at her. She look at me. I couldn’t tell her what I was going to do. And that was very devastating to me.”

Tico and a cousin reach the coast heavily patrolled by Cuban soldiers. He does not hesitate. It’s now or never. They plunge into the unknown wearing nothing but shorts. There is no turning back.

“I was concentrating on getting in the water. Once I was in the water I knew I was free. Nobody can stop me,” Sanchez recalls. “Everything was black. The only thing we could see was Guantanamo Bay.”

He battles stormy swells, driving rains and increasing doubt. "I didn’t think I was able to make it. I didn’t the strength to continue swimming.”

Finally, after more than two days in the water and nearly seven watery miles, an exhausted but exhilarated Tico reaches the fortified US Base.

Then, after four days of interrogation by US Marines and another 18 days in a cell, Tico was flown to Miami.

So just how far did Tico travel in the water? It’s like swimming the distance between Church Hill in Richmond to Willow Lawn in Henrico County.

By chance the same federal agent who processes Tico registered his brother six months prior. He learns that Kenny is living in Richmond.

“Everything changed. Everything.”

Eventually after ten years and piles of legal red tape their parents were allowed to join Tico and Ken in a tearful reunion in 2003.

Reporter Greg McQuade introduces us to the remarkable Richmond restaurant owner who literally swam to freedom. Just click on the video for the full report.