How Wilfredo León, a Cuban Émigré, Became a Polish Volleyball God
TOKYO – There are around 11,000 athletes at the Tokyo Olympics, each with a story. Here’s one of them, about the world’s greatest volleyball player.
He is an adopted son from Poland, born 28 years ago in Cuba. If that sounds odd, here’s a clue to the explanation: The protests over the lack of food and other basic human needs that took place in Cuba last month also have a lot to do with the story of Wilfredo León, the latest and one of Cuban’s greatest sports exports, one more star athlete his nation has lost to the riches of modern sport.
“In Cuba, you are told when you grow up that all the great champions of the past suffered from these conditions, that suffering will help you become the best,” León said from his home in Warsaw as he prepared for himself. get to Tokyo. . “This is not true. To be the best you can be, you need good facilities, a nice place to rest, good food, doctors. This is the only way to go. ‘have a long sporting life.
León, the star striker for his professional team in Italy and more recently for Poland, has long been considered one of the best volleyball players in the world. But this is the first time he has competed for his adopted homeland in the Olympics, due to the long processes he had to endure, first to obtain permission to leave Cuba and then to become eligible to represent. Poland at the Games.
Her presence in her national team made Poland a gold medal contender, and she went 4-1 in the preliminary round largely because of León.
At 6-foot-8, he rises so high and so quickly that he can make his knees appear to be level with the back of the net. He also has the rare ability to use his jump serve as an offensive weapon: in his first Olympic games, León’s serve continued to knock down opponents who tried to defend him.
He is still hiding, then suddenly flies off from the back or side of the court to complete a point. It is impossible to ignore, but overplaying can be perilous, because it is also the ultimate lure. In a tight third set against Japan last week, tied at 24-24 and Poland looking to close the game, three Japanese players rushed to prepare to defend León, only to watch the ball. go to his teammate, Bartosz Kurek, who taped the ball in the open court. One point later, the match was over.
León is one of a long line of great Cuban volleyball players who have abandoned their homeland. Most set off in search of not only the riches of a professional career, but also, perhaps, a national team program that has the resources to house its developing stars in leaky rooftop dormitories, a organization that can provide running water and standard medical treatment for injuries. happen.
León said that when he started playing for the Cuban national junior team there were 10 players his age who were almost as good as him. After two years, eight of them had resigned. Other Cuban stars, who could have made a very impressive Cuban national team, are now scattered around the world, including Yoandy Leal, who plays for Brazil, and Osmany Juantorena and Angel Dennis, who now represent Italy.
Similar to other Cuban stars, León said he received several offers of citizenship after leaving the island nation in 2014, some of which included a significant sum of money. He chose Poland mainly because he had a Polish girlfriend, Malgorzata León, who is now his wife and the mother of his two children, and because Poland loves volleyball.
“I was not interested in using my privacy as a business plan,” he said. “You have to choose a country because you love a country.”
Volleyball, however, was his first love, since his parents enrolled him in a recreation program to get him off the streets of Santiago de Cuba. At 11, León was playing in tournaments abroad for the junior national team.
He also lived for long periods of time on the top floor of a dormitory where the rain poured through the ceiling and he had to lug two buckets of water from a nearby well up four flights of stairs to bathe or do his bath. laundry.
By age 14, León had grown to 6-foot-4 and was asked to start training with the senior team. Conditions were a little better after that, he said, but not by much. He had competed before in Mexico City, where he had seen restaurants and shops teeming with food and clothing, and knew that a better life might be within reach.
In 2011, a teammate who owed a Polish journalist a favor asked León to give him an interview. This interview, which was conducted online, led to a few more online chats with the same reporter and then a meeting at the World League tournament in Gdansk, northern Poland.
“After four days spent together, we knew there was a special bond between us,” said Malgorzata León, who was the journalist.
Wilfredo and Malgorzata tried to stay in touch on the internet, but Cuba’s spotty Wi-Fi network made it difficult. They met at a few other international tournaments in 2012, but struggled to maintain contact.
The breaking point for León came after the World League tournament that year, where he saw Malgorzata and helped his team win a bronze medal with a severe ankle sprain. Returning to Cuba, he was forced to undergo 45 days of military training, walking and crawling in the mud of the forest with little food.
In 2013, he told Cuban officials he would no longer play for the national team and requested permission to move abroad. It took a year, until early 2014, for the government to give him his passport so that he could travel to Poland. He didn’t play volleyball for almost 18 months, then signed with clubs in Russia and Qatar for the next three years before joining Sir Safety Perugia, one of Italy’s top teams, in 2018. .
But it wasn’t until 2019 that he became eligible to play for the Poland national team and to represent a country of around 38 million people with a predominantly white population. León is one of several thousand black residents.
He said his adopted home had kissed him. Now he wants nothing more than to earn him a gold medal, building his legacy in the game he loves.
“It’s a sport where you have to be open-minded and help your teammates to be able to fly with others,” he said. “It’s a simple game, but only if everyone works to move as one.”
Poland has not won an Olympic gold medal, or even reached the gold medal match, since 1976, but its people have loved the sport for a long time. It is probably the second most popular sport in Poland, behind football. León, who chose Poland as his home country in part because of this culture, took the sport to another level.
Kevin Barnett, two-time Olympian and volleyball commentator for NBC Sports, said his former teammate Vital Heynen, who now coaches the Poland national team, told him he no longer has to wrestle with basketball -ball for the best great athletes in the country. “They all choose volleyball,” Barnett said.
Despite losing in their opener, Heynen said the team was in great shape.
“Eight perfect games is too much for anyone,” Heynen said after Poland’s victory over Japan in the group stage. “The most important thing is to see that things improve. We are starting to have this Olympic fire.
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