Cuba’s Champion in the Paralympic Games

Fernando Ravsberg

Cuban athlete Yuniry Castillo assures us that for her there are no barriers, as she always manages to do what she sets out to. Photo: Raquel Perez

HAVANA TIMES — Yuniry Castillo is a young Cuban woman who won the 100 and 200 meter sprints in the Paralympic Games in Beijing, also setting new records in those two competitions.

Her performance was not by chance; in world tournaments she has won gold medals in the 100, 200 and 400 meter sprints and was the Pan American champion.

“I have always been active in sports. When I had my accident I felt bad because my body needed to something to do for me to feel useful,” she explained.

She adds that in 2000, the commissioner of judo — the sport that she participated in before losing her arm — presented her to coaches involved in training athletes with disabilities and her career took off.

“For me, athletics has meant everything. I can tell you that at first I didn’t like it, but athletics is what taught me to see life from another perspective; it has made me feel useful. This is the sport through which I’ve managed to represent my country, holding its name up high, and for me that’s something extremely important,” she said.

We interviewed her in Havana, during her final practices before leaving for London to represent her compatriots in the Paralympics (August 29-September 9), the sports competitions involving people with disabilities from around the world and in which Cuba holds a very prominent place.

From disabled to athletic elites

The impressive results of Cubans in the Paralympics are because islanders who are disabled are attended to in special schools from when they’re children. Current enrollment in these facilities is more than 50,000 students. There, they’re educated, seen to for their mental and physical attends, taught to live with their limitations and are encouraged to participate in sports.

When these athletes reach a certain level or outstanding potential is detected, they are placed under the guidance of specialized personnel to become atletas de alto rendimiento (athletic elites).

Like Antonio Sanchez, many Cubans who are disabled have made remarkable achievements in these Games. Photo: Raquel Perez

It’s therefore common to see people who are blind running on tracks under the guidance of their coaches at centers like the Ciudad Deportiva (Sports City) in Havana.

The sporting victories of these individuals have an even greater connotation than those of other athletes because they can feel equal to other human beings. “I never think that I can do less than other people, for me there are no barriers, I always manage to do what I set out to,” said the exceedingly proud Yuniry to us.

In recognition of her sports career “the country gave me a car,” one of the biggest prizes offered in Cuba. She immediately explained that “the car’s an automatic, just like one anyone else might drive, except it’s not manual.”

From Beijing to London

The young athlete still keeps alive her memory of Beijing. “It was wonderful, something very special that I managed to do with the help of my coach, Miriam Ferrer, who has always been supporting me. For me it was the greatest because every athlete trains and practices to be an Olympic champion – and I achieved that goal.”

In Beijing, “There were nine of us in athletics, and we performed well, winning three gold medals in addition to silver and bronze medals. Although it was a small delegation, we knew how to handle ourselves in the field and represent Cuba like we needed to. This year I’ve been training to perform well in the Paralympics in London.”

Her coaches have conducted a study of her opponents on the track, and she knows that among the most dangerous opponents are firstly the Russians. She told us that she’ll also have to be very attentive to the athletes from Brazil and China, but she refused to talk about her strategies when we asked.

Though she’s still young, we wanted to know how she sees her life after the end of her sports career. She explained that right now she was preparing for that moment. “I have a degree in physical education, so maybe I’ll put that into practice one day – I don’t know yet. I also love languages and psychology.”