The city of Havana has its symbols: the Morro fortress, the Giraldilla, the Revolution Square and many more. If we talk about coaches, Cuba also has its own and Eugenio George, Alcides Sagarra and Ronaldo Veitía make up the golden trio of sports trainers.
Professor Veitía is unique. His hairstyle and prominent belly are as well-known in the world of judo as are its mats.
After officially announcing his retirement, Veitía spoke to Cubaplus from his home in the Santa María del Rosario neighborhood in Cotorro, a municipality of Havana.
How did you get involved with Judo?
Like every good Cuban, I enjoyed baseball but I wasn’t good at it - my brother was. When we used to play in our neighborhood I always got picked last, and my brother used to say that if I didn’t get picked to play, he wouldn’t play either.
I have liked judo ever since I first saw it - it was like love at first sight. I didn’t even have a judo gi in which to practice, so I asked the teacher if I could go in shorts and a strong shirt.
I never thought of myself as a great judoka, but as Mario Puzzo said in one of his books, “every man has but one destiny,” and it seems that judo was mine.
What were your results as an athlete?
I participated in several bilateral competitions against Panama and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and I also had decent results in national championships. My book called Ronaldo Veitía: An Ippon of Stories, will soon be published, where I speak about how things have never been easy for me. I had a sister who lived in Miami, and that was an issue in those days. I have been all over the world in my life, nearly 60 countries, and we’re still here. I told the editor that if she planned to censor anything I wrote, I would publish the book abroad, but she promised me that it would remain intact.
When did you decide to become a coach?
I was a member of the national pre-selection, but I expected much more of myself. I didn’t have the talent for what I aspired to, but I was good at teaching. The coaches saw that in me and gave me the opportunity to do so. My teachers were Roberto Sánchez and Rodolfo Guayo, I will be eternally grateful to them.
How did your first day go with your students?
Children are amazing. They would imitate me because I used to go to the gym in flipflops. Here in Cotorro I had four teams: Tigers, Dragons, Lions and Panthers and each one even had its own flag. I had a total of 100 students, male and female with a rotating schedule, and every two months I would organize an internal competition to pick the top 10 of each sex to compete in the province. Judo became the most practiced sport in Cotorro.
You were then promoted to train Havana’s provincial team…
From Cotorro I went to EIDE, the Provincial Sports Initiation School, where we began to get ahead in the School Games. After that I trained Mexico’s national women’s team for almost two years. I didn’t like that too much, but we won medals at the Pan American games for the first time.
What did you think when you were told that you would take the reins for the women’s national team in 1986?
I said to myself, that’s a big one, because I have always said that women are like a crossword puzzle - when you have figured out the horizontal, the vertical is missing. They are as unpredictable as the weather - scorching sun in the morning and huge storms in the afternoon.
But that is what makes them interesting. Had I not worked with women I would have seen life in a different way. Being with them has made me see how valuable they are and how much they can bring to your life. When I’d come home upset about something that happened, my wife always used to tell me I needed to understand the ladies. I used to say to them, “it’s unbelievable that the arguments I have with my wife are because of you!” Many see her as a mother, because they have also met at competitions outside of Cuba, and she knows how much hard work is required to be a champion.
How were those first years?
A few months later we obtained the gold with Cecilia Alacán in Indianapolis, 1987, as well as a silver and two bronze medals. That gave us momentum and after that we kept winning first place at the Pan American Games. Even in Mar del Plata 1995, when we took it all, people used to half-jokingly say that we had never achieved that in boxing and then they would say, “The Pan American Games are one thing, the World Championship is another.” It just so happened that in that same year we also won the World Championship for the first time, in Japan itself.
Another great joy must have been in Canada, when a team of stars was born...
Estela Rodríguez won in 1989, but in 1991 we didn’t get any gold medals, and Legna Verdecia won gold in Hamilton, where we also got three bronzes between Driulis González and Odalis Revé, who would later become our first Olympic champion. So began a winning streak in which we always won at least one gold medal every year up to the 2009 World Championship.
When I took over the team, we were not champions, not even in Central America, and now I can proudly say that I leave them as champions in all tournaments, including twice World and one Olympic Games. When I left the EIDE we had also been winners of the School Games for nine years, as now. “I leave history in your hands,” I said to my successors.