Cubans give fans golden cheer

The NORCECA Beach Volleyball season for the last seven years has started in Grand Cayman – mainly because it is by consensus the best organized and most picturesque venue on the circuit – and on Sunday it wrapped up with a surprising men’s winner.  

Cuban pair Nivaldo Diaz and Sergio Gonzalez made a winning campaign over Puerto Ricans Erik Haddock and Roberto Rodriguez at Seven Mile Beach. 

Watched by a packed audience under brilliant sunshine, Gonzalez and Díaz, winners of three gold medals in Guatemala City, Antigua Guatemala, and Huixquilucan, Mexico last year, and silver at home in Varadero, won 21-13, 21-15 in 33 minutes. 

The Cubans dashed Rodriguez and Haddock’s hopes of earning a third gold medal in four years in Cayman. The Puerto Ricans won gold in 2012 and 2013 but had to settle for silver last year. 

The Cuban supporters in the crowd really made themselves heard, accompanied by drumbeats and a tambourine.  

In the women’s final, USA-B’s Jenny Kropp and Whitney Pavlik capped off their return to the tour as playing partners after a two-year hiatus by capturing the gold medal. 

They beat the Canada-B pair of Julie Gordon and Brandie Wilkerson 22-20, 21-17 in 49 minutes. 

It was all watched by newly installed Cayman Islands Volleyball Association President Kennedy McGowan, who made significant changes in the layout and administration in the months leading up to the event. McGowan felt that this staging went relatively smoothly, despite the challenges.  

The significant changes involved a new configuration so that the capacity of the grandstand and VIP area could be doubled. The grandstand was also covered completely to ensure the blazing sun didn’t fry spectators.  

“All the athletes are just loving it,” McGowan said. “The athletes are our ambassadors for the island, so it’s very important that we make them feel comfortable and welcome.”  

Although Cayman is the No. 1 destination on all the athletes’ wish list, McGowan is not complacent. He also wants to keep NORCECA and the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball officials happy. As the opening stop on the tour, Cayman sets the standard for the rest of the season, he said, as it has done since 2009.  

There is no doubt that athletes leave with a glowing tribute because many details that foster goodwill are taken care of, such as reliable transport and extremely helpful guides for shopping trips, tours and meals.  

The new configuration of Seven Mile Beach allows the once-limited beach volleyball scene to be expanded so that now multiple courts can be laid out at once, making it possible for large tourist parties to visit and play on a recreational level.  

“That’s a great plus for us because of the expansion,” he said, adding that he hopes to attract parties of volleyball enthusiasts once the nearby Kimpton hotel is completed next year.  

All huge events like NORCECA rely heavily on volunteers, and McGowan wants more next year to ease the burden of the dedicated volunteers who worked long and hard in searing heat this time.  

The highlight of the tournament for McGowan was seeing how well teenage novices Ileann Powery and Chante Smith-Johnson did compared to the more experienced Cayman women’s team of Jessica Wolfenden and Stefania Gandolfi.  

“We still want to work long-term with Jessica and Stefania and maybe get Kristin Alexander to come back too,” he said. “The seniors are definitely there. They have the experience, and I have no immediate plans to retire them and want to utilize them as much as possible to continue to use the experience they’ve got and assist the younger ones to develop.” 

This weekend, Powery and Smith-Johnson are competing in Jamaica. The men’s side of Olney “OT” Thompson and Philippe Deslandes are in the Olympic qualifiers in Trinidad the following week. 

Thompson said that although they lost all three matches in Cayman, he was satisfied with their overall performances in tight games against extremely strong sides and it was good preparation for the less demanding matches in Trinidad.  

“We’re expecting at least a top three finish,” he said which will put them through to the next round. 

He added that he likes the new layout and the general feedback is that it suits athletes and spectators alike.  

There are plans to recruit two teenage males with a long-term view of making them world class. McGowan admits it is more difficult to get boys to commit solely to beach volleyball because they tend to already be heavily attached to traditional sports like football, basketball and swimming.  

“When you do find a couple of good male athletes, they can really do well,” he said. “And we’ve got our eye on a couple of them from other sports.”  

The fact that athletes from the best countries are full-time players, whereas Cayman’s reps have to fit their volleyball around work and education, is not lost on McGowan, a manager with LIME, one of the sport’s main sponsors. 

“For the last seven years, LIME has sponsored NORCECA. I’m grateful not just for their sponsorship, but I’m employed with them and was able to give back,” he said. 

Nevertheless, he said, Cayman has achieved a regional ranking as high as sixth in the past, and with the right strategy he believes they can emulate that or even go higher.  

Youngsters who commit could possibly receive volleyball scholarships, McGowan said, as Thompson and the equally brilliant Shervin Rankin did in the past, albeit two decades ago.  

Normally the local beach volleyball goes quiet now for the rest of the year, but this summer Cayman’s growing reputation means that it has been honored with hosting the Under-19 Olympics qualifying tournament. Smith-Johnson and Powery will be competing in that, and McGowan is hopeful they will excel.  

“We also have some other local events going on,” he said. “We want to resume the regular Sunday league to keep something going on the weekend.  

“We’ve just finished the Filipino Volleyball League and the First Baptist Volleyball Club is planning an indoor recreational league to keep the sport going.” 

There is also a national indoor league planned, as well as fundraising activities.