Williams spiked plenty of interest

Noel Williams has just become the former president of the Cayman Islands Volleyball Federation after 10 years at the helm and is proud to leave the sport in a far healthier state than how he found it.

Williams, who had been heavily involved in football up to that point, is still vice-president of Scholars International, a team he played for. When his playing career finished, he became a certified FIFA referee.

Completely immersed in football, he nurtured next generation players and helped develop talent.

After a request from members of the local volleyball association, Williams provided administrative assistance for a few months, which led to him being asked to consider the leadership and was voted in as president. Football was kicked to touch.

But last Tuesday evening, an extraordinary general meeting was called two years into mid-term and Williams was ousted by vice-president Kennedy McGowan.

Williams’ CIVF recovery plan worked well enough that, after six years as president, he pulled out all stops, summoned help from home and abroad to lobby and convince the executive management of the 35-country regional volleyball body, North, Central America and Caribbean Volleyball Confederation (NORCECA), to take a chance on Cayman to host this prestigious event. That was in 2009.

The event was so successful, the regional governing body decided to place Cayman as the opening event of the NORCECA season the following year and ever since.

The mutual regard developed between the regional volleyball body and the Cayman Islands led to NORCECA accommodating Cayman hoteliers’ request that NORCECA start the season later, as rooms were already fully booked through the end of March, around the normal time the NORCECA calendar commences. The Cayman event will now happen from April 25-27.

Dr. Ary Graca, president of Fédération Internationale de Volleyball, (FIVB) the world governing body, holds Cayman in high regard.

“Getting accepted in 2009 was big for the Cayman Islands and from then we have always strived to and maintained platinum quality hosting of an extremely important tournament,” Williams said.

He remembers fondly how the Scholars footballers one year entered the volleyball summer league just to keep fit during the off season and won it.

Sacrificing his football involvement has been well worth it for the 44-year-old banker who, up until now, dedicated four of his five weeks vacation to what has become a passion.

“I gave up football because I could see a plan where volleyball would become something extra special to Cayman, nationally and regionally,” he said. “When Kennedy came and said he wanted to run as president, I humbly told him that if this is what he felt he wanted, and could handle it, I stepped down and did not contest it. A new board has been formed and I fully support them and want to see volleyball continue to do well.”

Requests for Williams to become involved with other projects have already started to come in, he says.

He thanked NORCECA president Cristobal Marte “for giving us the opportunity, taking a chance on us, and put so much trust and partnership with each other that Cayman was able to host so many different tournaments very successfully, including Olympic qualifiers.”

He added, “We have created a sports tourism product template that other sports have now begun to follow.”

Williams is grateful for the support received from three successive governments. He also has high praise for tournament director Fareed Hosein, tournament organizer Carl Brenton, and committee members Tanya Campbell, Tracy Ebanks, Keith Higgins and Carl Brown.

To build volleyball up from a low-key sport to its immense popularity now is a great source of satisfaction for Williams.

“It’s not just about volleyball, it is about the courage, ambition and determination of my country,” he said. “Because of NORCECA, millions of people know about the Cayman Islands now.”

At the volleyball world conference last September in Los Angeles, in front of representatives from 217 other countries, Graca invited Williams to stand up to be roundly applauded for his achievements. Graca wanted to highlight how such a tiny country is setting an example of how to run a tournament superbly.

“For me, that was the highlight of everything I, along with my board, have done with volleyball,” said Williams. “They said that they could not find one fault with the Cayman Islands. From the time they arrive until they leave, they love our hosting experience. Players, officials, [and] international inspectors are always looking forward to the next year.”

Apart from their involvement in matches, athletes and officials alike enjoy shopping, visits to Turtle Farm, Dolphin Discovery, Stingray City and Rum Point and the restaurants and other attractions that make Grand Cayman so special.

“They get to experience our island as a whole and when they go to other countries they don’t get that kind of treatment.

“It helps that they are not playing on imported sand in cities but on Seven Mile Beach itself, which is absolutely beautiful.

“For beach volleyball, Cayman has created a buzz throughout the rest of the world on how to host,” Williams said.

He is still hopeful now that there is no through traffic on Seven Mile Beach that a world championship qualifier can be staged here.

The Comfort Suites, Marriott and Seven Mile Beach Resorts are the main venues for visitors.

Williams ensured personal vehicles for officials assigned to specific countries provided transportation, instead of impersonal buses. Liaison officers ensured everyone’s reasonable needs are seen to, from trips to supermarkets and excursions on non-playing days to souvenir shopping and airport runs.

“This is the kind of care they hardly get with other countries. It’s not just about coming to play volleyball, it’s about creating something special and it’s because of this attention to detail why NORCECA is unique. We go way beyond expectations. This is what Graca picked up on.”

Sponsors came on board accordingly, particularly the Ministries of Tourism and of Sports, CIBC First Caribbean, Corona, Cayman Airways and the Olympic Committee.

Cayman volleyballers have improved considerably recently and are now competing overseas and doing well, which was not the case previously.

Kristin Alexander used to play with the now retired Jennifer “JB” Bily and now partners with Jessica Wolfenden with positive results. Shervin Rankin, Olney “OT” Thompson and Richard Campbell are the main male ambassadors.

Of the 35 NORCECA countries Cayman has risen to a top 10 place. Considering they are not full-time athletes unlike many other NORCECA member countries, that is a huge step up.

The next generation is coming through and youngsters are competing in Youth Olympic qualifiers. The second female team in NORCECA will be teenage juniors merely gaining experience.

Volleyball is coached in all schools now and there is even a private schools competition running. Lack of enough facilities is hampering expansion as it can only be played in Camana Bay and at the University College of the Cayman Islands in George Town and at Clifton Hunter High School in the eastern districts. Even then, schedules compete with basketball and netball. Volleyball has also been introduced in Cayman Brac.

Two years ago, an indoor world championship qualifier was held here, plus there is the annual Spikefest.

“Volleyball has come a very long way,” said Williams. “I’m proud of our players, coaching staff that give a lot of their time, and kudos to them all, especially Keith Higgins.

“I’m happy that even as no one is actually paid in volleyball as yet, we are so successful.”

Presidents of other federations use Cayman as the model and Williams was invited to major beach commission meetings.

Repeat sp
ectators have become common. One elderly Californian couple were at the first NORCECA by coincidence and come back every year for it. Hotels book guests to coincide with NORCECA.

“Players come with their partners and families now,” said Williams. “Instead of 200-300 people, thousands now come,” Williams said.

One of the funniest memories he has was when Arnaldo Sanchez, a 400 pound NORCECA beach commission official, wanted to go in the water at Dolphin Discovery.

The dolphin handlers refused his request to swim with the dolphins, joking that they would have to bring in Shamu, the killer whale, for him to ride on. “Sanchez accepted their decision and even now he laughs when we call him Shamu.”

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