She is in front of me right now. His leotard seemed so simple and her look so serene that I left my eyes on her. I follow her while taking impulse; she leans on the vaulting horse and turns. I judge her from the stands: the landing is perfect. She also shines on the floor exercises: a real concert. The crowd erupts.
When announcing her age, I thought it was a mistake. Ten years, the announcer repeats. She is only ten and is already the best Cuban gymnast!
Her name curiously gathered two of my favorite singer: Annia Linares and Omara Portuondo. Maybe that’s why I noticed immediately: Annia Portuondo. She will win the title of Cuba on seven occasions.
I was not surprised when, two years later, in the Central American and Caribbean Games in Mexico in 1990, the girl won five gold and one bronze medals, including the all around event.
The headline of Granma newspaper of November 26, 1990, was “Annia already left her name engraved on gymnastics”, while Bohemia magazine of November 30th published an article called “Annia and her magic “. I read anything published on her. I became his fan.
She was very serious in her movements. Some commentator pointed out her lack of smile, a more sweet expression … but concentration was one of her keys.
Back in the Central American and Caribbean Games (Ponce, 1993), the Cuban swept to victory: six titles of six possible. In one of them, she even deserved the score of 10 points! The United States attended Mar del Plata 1995 Pan American Games with a team led by world champion Shannon Miller. Only thus they could beat the young Cuban girl who managed to win, however, three medals in the apparatus final, occasion in which her teammate Leyanet González also had an amazing performance.
1996 was the year of her consecration … and retirement. At the World Championship held in Puerto Rico, the public already knew her and took her as its own child. The support was delirious.
According to more than one expert, she was the best in vaulting horse, but the judges decided to give a few tenths extra to Romanians Gina Gogean (9,800) and Simona Amanar (9,787), above Portuondo (9,756). The fact that a Caribbean girl snatched the gold medal to gymnasts from Nadia Comaneci’s country maybe it seemed a sacrilege.
Annia Portuondo became with that bronze medal the first Cuban gymnast -without distinction of sex – who conquered a medal at a world championship, prior to Eric Lopez’s silver medal on parallel bars at the World Cup of Ghent, Belgium in 2001. M ultiple pages err when giving the distinction to the latter.
Although she had achieved the merit, she was not previously included on the payroll of the Cuban delegation to the Olympic Games in Atlanta 1996. The sports authorities also err then. The results in Puerto Rican soil were a blow that fell on their heads. According to the press, there were efforts to include her at the last minute … but all was in vain.
Annia decided to retire at just 18 and I lost track of her.
Imagine my surprise when I saw her appearing in the birthplace of the Olympics, in Athens 2004. She was a grown woman, but kept intact her poise. Marriage to coach Alan Hatch, not only gave her a new name, but took her out from retirement. Again she had looked to Cuba to her former teammate Leyanet –long-lived in this sport- González, who was earning laurels after becoming a mother.
Annia beat obstacles, injuries, and proved her worth at the highest level in her country of residence. Representing the United States, she achieved the dream of every athlete: an Olympic medal. She added two silver medals: in the final of vaulting horse and in the team competition during the Greek appointment.
At 26, when many have abandoned this sport, Annia became the first gymnast from Latin America to win an Olympic medal. I wanted to break my medal in two, she told a reporter.
On television I applauded her jumps, although the result was not a medal for Cuba. I applauded her sporting excellence. And when she took impulse for the race towards the vaulting horse, somewhere, I guessed a Guantanamo girl with her leotard and serene look that never surrendered.