Beijing, China, August 18, 2008 - George Eugenio Lafita is 75. He’s the man behind the Cuban Women’s Volleyball team, the brain that since 1969 has guided training programs and matches. After 2000, he decided to step aside during the matches and act only as Assistant Coach. Everyone knows that he and Head Coach Antonio Perdomo act as one, carefully dividing up responsibilities during the game. And Eugenio Lafita is still a leader.
Lafita was a spiker for the Cuban Volleyball team from 1956. 1n 1963 he started coaching the Men’s team in Cuba, leading them in the World Championship in Prague in 1966. In 1969 he became Technical Director of the Women’s Volleyball team and he’s still there as Technical Director of the entire Women’s Volleyball section in the Cuban Federation. After matches, he’s the person in charge of supervising training and preparing the team’s programs.
Even though he’s been attending Olympic Games since Munich 1972, he does not think about retirement. “It’s not the time. And I know that when I will be tired, I will still teach, even in the smallest school in Cuba. I will still teach Volleyball. That’s what I made all my life, that’s what I want to do. My wife Graciela passed away last year but we’ve done the same job for our entire lives, she was an FIVB instructor and we shared the same passion.”
In the training center in Havana, the net during Cuban Women’s training is always set the same as for Men’s matches: 2 meters and 43 centimeters. The official net height for Women is 2.24. The Cubans learn from when they are juniors to climb the sky, so when they play the real game they get their bellies over the net. They have learned to fly, especially the not-so-tall players such as Mireya Luis (who’s now one of the team leaders as manager) or team captain Yumilka Ruiz, who’s only 1.79. “We put the net also to 2.50, and the girls still can spike. Training strength is one of our secrets: strength is everything, it gives you high jump and velocity,” says Eugenio Lafita.
He now sits silent on the bench. When he decides to give some hints to the girls during a time out even Perdomo listens. Eugenio, as everyone calls him, is a real leader. “Our Volleyball is a school, that’s our secret. It’s a continuous flux of athletes, since they are 12 we prepare them to arrive at the top, working hard, especially developing their physical skills. The athletic preparation is what we’ve worked on more. In 1970 we decided to start a new program. We went to the World Championship in Bulgaria to study the best teams. We started to build a new team from the base; we wanted to win something important in eight years. In 1974 we were already among the best teams, in 1977 we won the silver at the World Cup, in 1978 we won the World Championship in Russia. It is still the biggest memory of my life. It was a dream: a little country like Cuba changed Volleyball history.”
While the other teams use a lot of technology to beat opponents (statistics, computers linked via Wi-Fi, radio connections with the bench to study the opponent’s changes in blocking), Eugenio Lafita’s system is still based on sweat. Training, training, training, even eight hours a day, Saturday included. Thanks to this hard work Eugenio Lafita managed to win a lot of gold medals: the 1978 World Championship, 1992 Olympic Games, 1994 World Championship, 1996 Olympic Games, 1998 World Championship, 1999 World Cup, 2000 Olympic Games, 2000 World Grand Prix.
He’s not the kind of coach who makes proclamations. He thinks, and then he acts. It happened years ago before a match in the World Cup. He called aside Taismary Aguero: “Try the jump serve,” he said. She had never tried it, but he was sure she already had that skill. A few words to trigger one of the most powerful services in women’s Volleyball.
He’s got intuition. Like when he called the 15-year-old Nancy Carrillo up for the Senior Team. “Are you sure?” asked the journalists and Cuban managers. “I know what I’m doing,” he simply answered. He knew. As usual.
Luis was one of the stars of the team. She quit Volleyball in 2000 after the Sydney Games but she’s still with the team as Director of International Relations for the Cuban Volleyball Federation, while also an IOC Athlete Commission member. “Eugenio is like a father for me,” says Luis. “Together with my parents, he taught me a lot. Not only sport lessons, he’s a teacher in life. He built me as an athlete and we had fantastic time together. He’s also an incredible person. He seems so calm, but you should see him when he loses his patience. Ha can be incredible. Once we were playing against USA. He told us to be careful to a specific call form the USA, which was a particular fake, we had to catch that ball. After half of the match we heard that call many times, but it seemed like we were deaf, because we did not save even one single ball. So he called a time out. And, to our enormous surprise, he talked to us in … English.”
“I think Volleyball is a wonderful sport,” says Eugenio Lafita, “and the key to my life is to educate. Through this sport I did not only make training or won medals, I worked on social development, education, entertainment.”
The Cuban Volleyball guru is still sitting on the bench. Educating girls on how to go for a fourth Olympic gold.