Havana, Cuba
Saturday 28th February 2015

For many years, I have wanted to visit Cuba.  It has been a bucket list destination, a dream & a curiosity underpinned by a colourful history of opulence, turmoil & struggle dealt out in generous measures.  

As other destinations on my “Top 5” list have been ticked off through work visits (Rio de Janeiro, Hawaii, Istanbul & Tokyo) or whilst travelling (Angkor Wat, Cambodia), to be subsequently replaced by other cities or countries, Cuba has remained my unicorn.

My interest was further piqued through working with ex-Cuban native & GB athlete, Yamile Aldama, who has such a spirit, drive & energy that made me wonder whether that was a unique trait or a national characteristic.  

Training sessions with Yami are filled with music, fun, hard work, attention to detail & support for each training partner.  Not necessarily adjectives that can be used to describe the environments in some other training groups I have seen.

Then recently, as Fidel Castro’s health saw his brother Raúl take his place in the seat of power & changes to the longstanding embargo have been proposed in discussions with President Obama, I realised that time was running out to witness the country as it has truly been over the last fifty years.

My visit to Mexico brought me close enough geographically & after a catch up on the phone with Yamile whilst I was in Nicaragua, she was able to connect me with her friend & now coach in the famed Cuban National Sports Academy, Yoelbis Quesada.  

My friend, Valeria, in Nicaragua set up a Skype call with her Cuban brother-in-law, who arranged for me to stay with the parents of a friend in Havana & in a few days, my plans came together & my ticket to the cayman-shaped island was booked.

To say this last week was everything I had hoped for & more would be trivialising the experience I have had in Havana.  

Cuba justified it’s place on my bucket list in only a few hours, as I wandered from barrio to barrio, marvelling at the vast range of rich & iconic architecture, whilst taking in the views along the water front from the Malecón.  I could go on waxing lyrical but the main purpose of the article is to document my visit to the Sports Academy.

Yoelbis invited me along to the Saturday preparation competition, which is one of a series of athletics meets that the coaches organise in place of travelling the world to take part in the indoor circuit.  

From 9am until the early afternoon, the national & national junior athletes compete against each other & the most promising athletes invited from the provincial training groups, in the bowels of the Estadio Panamericano.

The coaches are generous with their support, working together in numbers that offer a coach:athlete ratio beyond which I have seen in other centres of excellence & providing a refreshing collaboration to develop the talented athletes together.

There were world junior champions, world indoor champions & Olympic athletes dotted around the tracks, in-field & runways.  All the time putting their preparations for the new season together under the watchful gaze of an iconic image of Che Guevara.

After the competition concluded, training groups of athletes that had not taken part, either due to rehabilitation guidelines or coach/athlete decisions, came together to do their sessions.

From both my observations & the discussions I had with the coaches, I noticed a much greater focus on technical execution than in many other training groups i have worked with, although this may have partly been down to the time of year my visit took place.

The athletes here are scouted throughout the season in their schools & provinces but then selected at a national meet in July to continue their studies & training in Havana.  If selected, the State provides on-site accommodation, food, schooling, coaching & full medical/science support.  The youngest athletes I met were 15 years old.

Whilst the Academy may not be wealthy in terms of facilities, with the tracks & runways, like the stadium in desperate need of renovation, it is extremely rich in the quality of support afforded to the athletes.  

The coaches are well educated & numerous, the sports science & medical support is far more expansive than I experienced working for British Athletics, whilst the athletes were quick to recognise the support they receive as opposed to complaining about the entrenched condition of the Mondo surfaces or the desperate state of the changing rooms (where the toilet cubicles have no cubicle).

Combined with the genetically-gifted athletic physiques, this standard of coaching & the collegiate model of training alongside education provides valid reasons why Cuban athletes have been so successful in international sport in recent times (holding the record for most World Championships in baseball with 25 championships, compared to second placed USA who have won the event 4 times & Olympic medals in 2012 including multiple medals in boxing, athletics, judo & wrestling) despite the financial limitations placed upon the State.

Or maybe it is because of & not despite the social conditions that Cuban sport holds its own.  The spirit of each & every Cuban I met, athlete, actor or housewife was infectious.  They are a proud people, many of whom struggle on a daily basis to scratch together more than the very basics, as the bricks & mortar of the walls surrounding them crumble, to the extent many homes have now been abandoned.

Those I met all yearn for the opportunities that further international acceptance would provide, hopefully drawing the sons or daughters that have sought lives abroad, back home & the enhanced standard of living that may accompany such changes.  However, there is a resilience apparent, to live in the here & now, making the most of what they have.

These qualities seem to cross on to the fields of play, the boxing rings or athletics tracks & maybe contribute to the desire to succeed in the here & now, to represent, stand tall & show that no matter what struggles may be troubling you, victory is still an achievable goal.

I will certainly head back to Cuba & will continue to watch its sports teams & athletes closely.  In the meantime, I would like to thank Yami, Yoelbis & all the coaches & athletes that made me so welcome during my visit.  

I believe it is quite rare to have such an invitation to visit, so I was delighted to be able to be offered such an incredible opportunity to learn so much.

Hasta la victoire siempre…

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