–Mamita ! Mamita!!!
I screamed loudly at Armando Mestre Sports Palace, in Santiago de Cuba, in 1983. I shouted again and the stands seconded the claim in a chorus:
–We want Mamita!!!
A call to the legend: Mercedes ¨Mamita¨ Pérez , member of the world champion team in 1978. The women’s volleyball match between Cuba and United States was being dominated by the visitors thanks to the excellence of their players. Mamita´s magic was needed urgently.
The northern sextet had in its ranks the giant Flora Hyman, the short Rita Crocker, the efficient Debbie Green … The setter drew the ball in the air and the court trembled after every American spike. The previous year, at the World Cup in Peru, they had won the bronze medal; but their rise had not stopped. Cuba was facing , perhaps, the best team in the world.
Eugenio George, the Cuban coach, announced a change. Now Mamita is going to play, I thought… but instead of Mercedes Pérez, the player who appeared in the court was an inexperienced sixteen-years-old girl, not even very tall, with an unknown name: Mireya Luis.
Spellbound by the game I was witnessing, nothing on her impressed me. I did not know seeing the strategy or the generational renewal and I booed her, almost viciously.
I left the Sports Palace convinced that a medal at the Pan American Games in Caracas -in August of that same year- would be difficult to reach. In addition to United States, the Peruvian girls also have a very strong team, with the lefty Cecilia Tait and central blocker Gaby Perez del Solar.
The Venezuelan capital was a battle. The stellar veteran Imilsis Téllez was still the Cuban setter. Mireya made her debut in style. Cuba managed to get to the title discussion. The 3-2 win over the formidable American squad came out of all odds. I still remember the hugs, the jumps.
Cuba did not attend 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles -following most countries of the then socialist block; but in the next universal championship at Czechoslovakia, in 1986, it would prove its progress.
Mireya was news. A few weeks ago, she had become a mother and her participation was not assured. Would she still own her fabulous strength in the jump and attack? The question hung in the air, but she took care of clear them. I could not believe it when I saw her coming from the bench. I cried so much in front of the TV screen that the shouts must have been heard in the very center of Europe.
Cuba did not attend the 1988 Olympics, again. The 1989 World Cup was a revenge for girls that could not be tested in Seoul. They climbed to the top of the podium. Mireya was chosen as the best spiker and was part of the ideal team of the tournament. She repeated that condition in the most demanding events.
The history of Cuban Volleyball is known (glorious history). The women’s team was dubbed The Spectacular Dark-skinned Girls of the Caribbean and they won three consecutive Olympic Games: Barcelona 92, Atlanta 96 and Sydney 2000.
I particularly remember another of their success such as the World Cup in Brazil in 1994. The Cuban players won all matches without losing a set; including the final against the host. The matches between them were train crashes; but the game of the Caribbean athletes silenced the local public support.
An expert said that the Cuban squad had become a “machine” of playing volleyball. Mireya was the locomotive.
In China, “Luis” became queen. Her name opened all doors. Each of her points was echoed. She enjoyed playing and infected her teammates. When the team resented, she put character. A “scoopful” by Mireya used to be the perfect remedy. And no one dared to steal her an individual award, not risking the Chinese public -usually calmed- to invade the court.
Mireya Luis is one of the athletes with greatest record in the history of Latin American sport and a living legend of universal volleyball. Charismatic and respected, after her retirement, she joined the Athletes Commission of the International Olympic Committee and is currently helping to the development of beach volleyball in Cuba.
Now that there are Caribbean spikes in many teams in the world, and other Cuban girls playing volleyball got a bronze medal at the Central American and Caribbean Games in Veracruz, my mind flooded with memories of thirty years ago.
I owe Mireya an apology; an excuse with rigor. You do not witness the birth of a star every day.