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Rebels Men’s Volleyball Players Score Close Connections in Cuba

January 19, 2013

Story by Aaron Cyr, a member of the RRC Rebels Men’s Volleyball Team

As a member of dozens of volleyball teams over my playing and coaching career, I have experienced quite the range of trips. Whether it was a bus trip to Calgary or a cargo van ride to Brandon, there was always a unique adventure to be had. But when RRC Rebels Coach Dan Gilbert informed us this year’s trip was not to your typical destination of Saskatchewan, Alberta, or B.C. — but instead to the historic city of Havana, Cuba — I knew this trip would be special.

While a Christmas vacation to Cuba usually suggests 11:00 a.m. wake ups, beach siestas, and plenty of fruity cocktails, our plans were different. We were here to perform. The first four mornings started with 6:30 a.m. alarms, awakening us for early morning practice with Cuba’s top volleyballers. After being paired up with a Cuban positional counterpart, we spent some time stretching and warming up, at the same time crossing a language barrier and learning about one another.

Roberto, the Cuban coach, called us “rivals”, since we would eventually be on opposite sides of the net. But this was just not so. We became friends. This was difficult, since I spoke as much Spanish as he did English. Communicating with hand gestures — and sometimes just agreeing with “si” — was common. But when we hit the court to compete against each other, we spoke the same language. It wasn’t verbal, nor did it involve any hand gestures — just that the sport we had both played our entire lives now gave us common ground. 

While mornings were spent training and wondering at the Cubans’ incredible athletic abilities, afternoons were spent outside the gym. Being only a short trip from downtown Havana presented us with the opportunity to take our minds off the volleyball and to absorb some authentic Cuban culture. Luckily, we had Iovanny — one of the most qualified and proficient tour guides in all of the Caribbean — to guide us.

Each stop the bus made gave us time to explore a city with deep historical significance. Although I had heard of Fidel and the Bay of Pigs, and I had seen the famous stencil portrait of Che, it wasn’t until Lovanny explained the implications these people and events had on the citizens of Cuba that it really began to fascinate me. Havana truly is a city rich in history — and we only scratched the surface.

On one of our last days competing against the Cuban team, we took our game to the sand. Where Cuba enjoys 12 months of beach volleyball weather, Canada can only stretch out five playable months. I’d like to use that as my excuse as to why the Cuban players looked so much better than us, but it just isn’t true. Being an athlete in Cuba is a privilege, and where we saw the beach as a leisurely afternoon of sun and surf, the Cuban athletes were playing with the same desire they had shown on the indoor court.

After all our events — the practices, the games, the beach and a lunch — were said and done, the most impactful moment with the Cubans occurred. Coach Dan told us before we left that we’d be well-advised to bring along extra gear, to trade or leave with our Cuban counterparts. After seeing what gear they were playing in, I realized I had not brought enough.

Most played in over-worn court shoes that needed to be retired, or jerseys that had been given to them at the last international event they attended. Here I was, going through two pairs of shoes a season, wearing matching practice shirts with the rest of my team, thinking these things were making me a better volleyball player. Dianne (my positional counterpart) and the rest of the Cuban athletes proved me wrong. Their desire to be on that court is undeniable, even with the floorboards coming up.

Since I’ve been home, we’ve practiced a dozen times and competed on one weekend. As expected, the team has brought a new attitude to the court. It has nothing to do with the technical skills we learned or the strategy that Coach Dan has implemented. It has to do with skills that are never typically practiced, best described as the emotional and social aspect of sport.

Before we left, the term “adversity “didn’t have the same meaning it does now, and I want to thank Dianne and the rest of the Cubans for showing me that. It will be a while before I visit Cuba again. But when I do, you can be assured I will not have forgotten the lessons I’ve learned — both on and off the court.

Click here to see a gallery of photos from the Rebels’ trip to Cuba.