I am back in Puerto Rico. This time for the official opening of the ITTF Hot Spot Training Center in the city of Utuado – one of these places on earth that seemingly is a perfect fit for our sport. More than anything passion for Table Tennis lives and breathes here. Not much of anything to do for young people I guess?!– no cinemas – no distractions – just practice your sport of choice . That is if you have the proper conditions of course , which now is the case since the players and coaches of the Utuado Table Tennis Club took possession of their new venue a few years back – a nice Hot Spot that with a bit of squeezing can hold fourteen tables.
Table Tennis – The nr one sport
Table Tennis rules this city. It does help that the players are dominating the national events and receiving some international attention as well.
The Mayor of Utuado, a man in his mid thirties , a career politician elected to office at the young age of twenty-three, is of course backing the training center whole-heartedly . The problem is that the Mayor most likely is leaving office later this year when one of the many elections comes around. Maybe he will miss, maybe not? the lineup outside his office every Tuesdays when the citizens of Utuado exercise their right to in person meet the mayor and to file a complaint. Interesting, refreshing approach to democracy right there.
Brothers in arms
We are travelling on the highway to Utuado, leaving the seaside hotel where I am staying and slicing right through the lush and green mountains of Puerto Rico. It’s a 25 minute drive – but it used to be much longer.
“This road, the highway, took about twenty years to complete says my driver for the day, the President , well to be honest pretty much everything else as well , from coach to caretaker of the center; Bladi Diaz. “Before that it was really hard to get here. But it’s all worth the ride. This is a safe and quiet place – I like it here “
Very much like his brother and co-coach, Eladio Afanador the investment in time and effort towards our sport is admirable and really fantastic.
For Bladi , with three ..Oops .. four daughters in training, table tennis absorbs hours, days and years. Leaving his work at 1600, it is time for a five hours shift at the club before he has to threaten to shut down the light at 2100 to get the young players out of the venue.
On top of the physically demanding work to actually run the practice we also have an interesting father and “really promising daughter relation” to explore and discuss during my days in Utuado. Turning twelve years old this year Adriana Diaz is already , and I have said if before, a rock-star in the making for the sport of Table Tennis. For the moment , father supervised practice on a daily basis needs to change as most of the time , although intense love always wins in the end , some shall we say smaller disagreements are creeping into the picture.
Being a wise man and a father of three kids I am thinking – Maybe it’s the best to address this particular matter with the mother Diaz?? – Who of course is as passionate about the sport as her husband. Former player too, she should be aware of the developing situation.
Yes , we have talked about it she says. It’s time to Adriana to start working in Eladio’s group next season. Good decision I think – the love is of course still there – but this time it will be of the distinctly tougher sort.
Listen to this story and you will understand that the passion for sport can overpower almost anything in life. Eladio, a few years back left his work in the Pharmaceutical industry to take care of the practice in the center for a small pay, much less than his previous earnings. Eladio shows up for morning and afternoon training with a group of six to eight players – among them his son Brian Afanador who with hard work, persistent approach has seen his stock constantly rising on the international cadet and junior scene since he was picked up by the ITTF World Hopes Team programme three years ago. Today at the age of fifteen he is a strong, relatively confident player gradually growing out of his surroundings in Utuado. The plan in motion is to have Brian in Falkenberg, Sweden with coach Peter Karlsson starting from September this year.
It’s really fantastic for us to have a Puerto Rican player win an international event. What Brian did when winning the Cadet Singles in the Italian Open back in March goes along way here. Really a nice story of cooperation and learning as we have progressed well I think with great guidance from the ITTF staff involved – Zita Pidl and the coach Dejan Papic – whom I have learnt a lot from Eladio explains at the same time as he is introducing his youngest son Ricky – a one year old little fellow that already is grunting loudly when you try to remove the table tennis racket from his possession. “You will see him again out there in just eight years Eladio promises – and why not ? – I see no reason to NOT believe him.
Caroline gaining ground and Ivan enjoys the success
Present in the center is also the emerging female junior player Caroline Cordorero – fresh from a convincing performance in the ITTF / Latin American cup in Costa Rica where she reached the final – clearly her best performance in a long time. Living even further up in the mountains, in the city of Jayuya, Caroline travels during the summer months on a slippery road, some forty minutes for less than 15 km distance, to train in Utuado. She will also, for the third year in a row report back to the ITTF Training center in Koping, Sweden for training come September/October, very much with Rio 2016 in mind.
The training group, from good junior standard to promising youngsters age 8-10, now wired into the growing ITTF Hot Spot network is a living example of the philosophy involved – to provide a light non costly ITTF recognition “Where Good Things Happen”. Because you see – they do good things right here and right now offering opportunities and building for the better good of our sport. They are also getting better with the hours and the hard coaching work invested – actually to point that it now has become a pleasant problem to deal with for Ivan Santos – The president of the Puerto Rican Association.
“Well I am getting some whispers from other clubs about our support to Utuado Ivan explains.” But I always say to them – they are the best. Right now we have on the youth side almost 80 % of the national team players coming from this center. So what do you do – of course we should look to continue the support”
Table Tennis – a growing sport
Travelling back to San Juan for the official opening ceremony I am driven by Ivan and his wife Leticia who actually is enjoying some of her very first days of work freedom after retiring from long time government work at the mere age of 55. “Good, now it can be full time table tennis administration support – much needed Ivan says – I am sure thinking of a growth and improvements as always. And the fact is that the Puerto Ricans are getting stronger – bigger and more recognized by the authorities.
I think for sure the sport of Table Tennis can grow here. We are trying to get more of the cities involved in competitions and to start clubs. Permanent venues are important and it seems like there is interest to invest in that from several cities right now Ivan continues. I hope we can get more and better funding for sport in our country. It should be important. Here in Puerto Rico we are the world champions of fast food, so anything having people engaged in sports i think is a good thing.
The Complex Marriage
We are talking sport and government as we approach San Juan. The never ending topic of the relationship with the USA comes up for discussion. It is indeed a complex marriage. Not to dwell too much on it here – but the two sides are now; remain the same or to become completely absorbed as the 52; nd state of the United States of America.
Politics is an important part of life here. The public sector alone employs around 150,000 people which is a lot although it used to be more – close to 200,000 Leticia explains from the backseat of the car. Working in the government is not easy as politicians constantly are positioning, moving around people and adjusting polices as soon as an election is coming up. In Puerto Rico – either you want to become a politician, lawyer or a doctor – that’s the career paths most explored she says.
Well to sum it up over a nice farewell lunch at a Mexican restaurant close to the airport.. The election is coming up. Ivan Santos is two years from retirement and we have on this very island the best “presidential pair” in Latin America with Ivan Santos and Leticia committing to several years of hard voluntary work for Table Tennis.
And.. Let’s see how it goes with the USA / Puerto Rico marriage. Who knows what will happen down the road. But, I wonder if not the comment from Adriana Diaz to her father tells it all; “Dad, if we become a state of USA- do I have to play then with the American flag on my chest ? – I don’t want that to happen , then I will quit playing !!
Good comment – clearly Passion and Pride, Puerto Rican style. And from what I know “Heaven is still a place on earth “