Katiuska Perez: "I feel part of what has been achieved"
It is a fact; Cuban women have opened themselves up a space in the complicated world of international pole vault. The most serious references came in late 2011 thanks to the excellent performances by Yarisley Silva in competitions throughout the globe class and became stronger when that same athlete won the solver medal at the London Olympic Games.
Cuba, which is another unprecedented event for the Caribbean region, attended the meeting at the British capital with two athletes; Dailis Caballeros and the aforementioned, Yarisley Silva, who clinched the right to compete under the five rings after registering 4.50 or more, the minimum required to participate in the Olympic tournament.
However, even if the consecration of the work of Alexander Navas (coach of the women in this specialty) has come through the two already mentioned girls, is necessary to recognize that they were not the only pieces he has carved during his years devoted to this specialty.
OnCuba approaches the story of one of the forerunners of this sport in Cuba, Santiago de Cuba’s Katiuska Perez Barrero, first Cuban woman who challenged and passed over the 4 meters height with a pole in hand.
What were your beginnings?
Obviously the pole vault was not my initial choice, this discipline was virtually unknown by the Cubans and the girls started practicing it in the late 1990s.
I am now 37 years old and am an athlete since I was 11. I started moving up the sports educational system: first I enrolled in the EIDE, and then I passed to the provincial ESPA (Advanced Athletics School). But I got stuck in the province, years passed and although time and again I won in the School Games I was not selected for the national ESPA, or to any national center.
By the time I was 15 or 16 I realized that I had become a good athlete and it was clear to me that if I stayed in sports would be only to make it to the National Team. So, what did I have to do to enter it? My dream was to dress in the patriotic colors and represent my country in the international arena.
And what did you do?
When I was around 21, I thought that the way out was to practice something new. I began lifting weights and at the same time started the pole vault.
I used to train in the morning with the pole, and about 10 in the morning I started at the gym. I gave my word to the teachers that the first thing they authorized I would start practicing with the seriousness it takes to become a top athlete.
That’s how you got into pole vault?
Yes, that’s how I got to the pole, which was official in Cuba because weightlifting had not yet been authorized for women.
And the national team?
Well, I decided on pole but I had yet to enrol in the national team. It’s a long story…
At 22 I came to Havana representing Santiago de Cuba in the Cuba Cup after having earned the right when I jumped 2.70m (to participate they required 2.60).
There I shared the 4th place, and with that I could see I had real potential to be among the best in Cuba. Then I talked to the teacher who was in charge of the specialty and told him I would come over Havana the following year. And that I did, I went to my province, I organized all the transfer papers from college, and I came to Havana, to a relative’s home.
But I had to start getting ready on the outside; because this teacher (she doesn’t mention his name) could not represent me because he had a dispute with one of the athletes he was training (Mariana McCarthy at that time was the first figure in the speciality with a 3.50m jump).
For these things in life, fate got me in the way of Alexander Navas, who was ESPA professor and offered to help. I finished that year with a 3.40m personal best and that way I finally got a call from the national team, the first step of my dream…
What does Alexander Navas mean to you?
Not forgetting the teachers which I started with, and Ruben Camino (now men’s coach) who also helped me; I consider that Navas was the promoter of my career as a pole vaulter.
Since that day when he offered to help me, I took the opportunity; he gave me some tests and told me: “I have one thing very clear, if you came from Santiago de Cuba on your own, it is because you wish to work.” From then until I retired he led me all the way to my top performances. With him I managed to get up to the national team after the 3.95m that earned me to be invited to a tour. Later I passed the 4 meters barrier, becoming the first to beat that height in Cuba and that 4.25 that is my personal best and it was also a national record.
What were your best results?
First place in the Central American and Caribbean Championships held in Guatemala in 2001 (3.85), fifth place in the Santo Domingo 2003 Pan American Games (4.10) and gold medallist in the 2005Nassau CAC Championships. There I jumped 4.25, CAC and Cuban record at the time.
What was practicing pole vault then?
Very difficult, imagine there were not many resources and not much faith in what we were doing. We only had one athlete’s pole because she had been silver medalist at the Pan American Games in Mar del Plata. To that you have to add that we were practicing a discipline nobody trusted, so we were the last for all…. We had to open the way and make us a place.
Did you share training with the generation that now represents us in this specialty?
Yes, with all of them, with Maryoris Sanchez, Yarisley Silva, Caballeros and also with Lazaro Borges. We all trained together.
Then, you think the future is safe for Cuban pole vaulting?
Right now the girls are very young and athletes in this particular event usually have long-lasting careers at the top level. The results have started to show but is the result of years of work and we have the problem that there is no basis at as of now, we have no cadets or youth. But I trust that this will be reversed as the event is better considered and we are gradually acquiring resources. This also allows massive practice, which is the key to maintain the progress achieved to date.
Of your career as an athlete, what do you remember with most pride?
Well definitely, when I fulfilled myself as an athlete; that I managed to enter the national team and represent my country.
I never thought I would be in this speciality, first because of how complicated and difficult is its practice, and second, because at that time I had to struggle with many things: me and the injuries, with shortages (resources) and against lack of confidence. So I am very glad to have won those battles and being the first woman from Cuba to pass the 4 meters barrier. But I am proudest now of having ventured much in an event like this that has starred in the best performances of late by Cuban sports and of having had as a teacher who is now the best Cuban coach and one of the best in the world. So, definitely, for me it’s a privilege to have been there, because I feel part of what has been achieved.
What are you doing at present?
I am working with the base in my province (Santiago de Cuba). I’m doing work with school boys, I have 12-13, and 14-15, male and female, mixed. Here we go with what we have, trying to help the continuation of this story.
Any advice for young people starting in the sport?
Do not ever lose motivation, that’s the key to great results