25 Dec 2017

Guaynabo was my destination on the morning of Saturday 23rd December; the name may not be one that is of world renown but for Puerto Rico, the small city, a drive of about 20 minutes from the capital San Juan and the same from the international airport, was the home for the Men’s Singles and Women’s Singles events at the National Championships.

Nothing remarkable in that fact; the remarkable fact was that there was a table tennis tournament. It was the best possible Christmas present for the small Caribbean island. Also, it sent out the best possible seasonal message of goodwill from a part of the world that has arguably made the greatest progress of any in our sport in the past decade.

by Ian Marshall, ITTF Publications Editor

Welcome visitors to the competition were Angel Perez Otero, the local mayor and Gil Urbina Perez, the city’s Director of Sport and Recreation; quite simply they have given 100 per cent backing; in fact 1,000 per cent backing in very difficult times.

“We want to give the young people in Guaynabo and the surrounding area every opportunity that we can.” Angel Perez Otero

During the first week of September, Hurricane Irma hit Puerto Rico; then two weeks later Hurricane Maria devastated the island, the biggest disaster to hit in living memory. Now three months later most parts of the island are still without power; the devastation is immense, major shopping precincts closed, homes destroyed, livelihoods ruined.

Guaynabo is the exception, the table tennis hall having suffered only minor external damage; wall cladding is in need of repair but electricity and water have now returned. A dedicated centre, the premises house some 12 table tennis tables, for training you could fit 16 or more in number quite easily; there is air conditioning, sufficient lighting and a gallery with tiered seating for some 200 to 300 spectators. The local coach is Jean Carlos Berrios; he welcomes everyone with open arms and I mean everyone.

“Every evening the place is full, everybody is welcome, it doesn’t matter where you live. Each evening we have some 40 players; there is no charge, everything is free. The municipality supports us.” Jean Carlos Berrios

Perhaps the premises need a lick of paint and a court mat but the important factor is that there is somewhere to play table tennis.

However, of the 22 table tennis clubs in Puerto Rico, not all have been as fortunate as Guaynabo; San Juan is closed, staff being directed to more urgent needs, in Ceiba the roof has been destroyed, in Utuado the floor has been extensively damaged, in Ponce there are considerable difficulties. Every club to some extent has been affected. There are no exceptions.

Yet as I talk to players, coaches and officials, there is no feeling of self-pity; quite opposite and one reason is sound leadership.

They say behind every good man there is a good woman; nowhere is that more so than in Puerto Rico. Ivan Santos, the President of the Puerto Rico Table Tennis Federation and his wife Leticia, whose role is one of do everything necessary in the utmost efficient quiet manner, have engendered a spirit of unity.

The current atmosphere is that of Winston Churchill after the British Expeditionary Force retreated from Dunkirk in 1940. “We will never surrender”; for Ivan Santos it is just the same, “Puerto Rico más fuerte” the will is stronger than ever.

“We start again, everyone is motivated. The coaches are all working hard as are the Presidents of the clubs; I’ve met with the Sports and Recreation Department, they support us and in six months we’ll be strong again. At the moment, understandably for the government there are other priorities for the island.” Ivan Santos

The current priority for the government, especially for those living in rural areas outside San Juan is the basic needs to live; food, shelter, water and power.

Nevertheless, table tennis looks forward. Already for next year a full calendar is in place; one tournament each month from Guaynabo, Bayamon and Carolina in the north to Cidra and Guayama in the south, Mayaguez in the west as well as Corozal and Utuado in the centre.

All for one and one for all, the Guaynabo musketeers (left to right) Gil Urbina Perez, Ivan Santos, Jean Carlos Berrios and Angel Perez Otero (Photo: DOYT)

 

Great credit goes to Ivan Santos but great credit goes to everyone involved; everyone is pulling in the same direction. I hear no voices of dissent.

“The help given by the ITTF is greatly appreciated; our goal continues to be to compete at the highest levels. When Maria hit; ITTF President, Thomas Weikert called to ask if we were safe, Juan Vila, the Latin American Table Tennis Union President also called as did many, many more, far too numerous to mention; to everyone I’m deeply grateful for their concern and thoughts.” Ivan Santos

Who won the tournament; that was of secondary importance but for me everyone was a winner as I saw players hug each other in respect when a match finished but, more important was sign on the side of the road as I entered the highway. It was one that reflected the whole attitude of those involved in any aspect of table tennis in the island and one I think than even if you do not understand a word of Spanish, the meaning is crystal clear.

It read in bold letters: Positivo – Puerto Rico se levanta!

 

General News Angel Perez Otero Gil Urbina Perez Ivan Santos Jean Carlos Berrios