Israelis on NCAA volleyball teams play on while dealing with a harsh reality
November 1, 2023
October 17, 2023
It’s induction week at the International Volleyball Hall of Fame in Holyoke, Massachusetts. The ceremony is Saturday. Six inductees will join the previous 161 players, coaches, administrators and leaders from 25 countries who have already been enshrined in the museum at the birthplace of volleyball. We have stories on all six, continuing with Yumilka Ruiz of Cuba:
You could argue that the Cuban national women’s volleyball team in the 1990s and early 2000s was the greatest dynasty in the sport’s history.
Consider that the “Caribbean Girls” (Las Morenas del Caribe) won Olympic gold medals in three consecutive Games, which has never happened before or since. They added a bronze in 2004 for good measure and also won World Championships in 1994 and 1998.
A whopping five members of those dominant Cuban teams are already in the International Volleyball Hall of Fame, along with their coach Eugenio George.
A sixth will be added on October 21 when Yumilka Ruiz joins her teammates in volleyball immortality.
“For my country, (the Hall honor) has a great meaning,” Ruiz said. “Cuba has six players, including me, and the best coach in the world exalted to this recognition, which is the maximum that an athlete in the world can aspire to.
‘I think there are NO words to describe the happiness and pride that is felt.”\
Ruiz, at just 5-foot-10 (1.79m), was an outside hitter who won gold in the 1996 Atlanta Games and again in 2000 in Sydney. Ruiz was the captain of the 2004 team that won bronze and her Olympic career ended in 2008 when the Cubans finished fourth.
“I had the opportunity to belong to two generations of different players,” Ruiz said. “I played on the national team from 1993 until 2000 with those athletes who managed to win three Olympic gold medals in a row.
“It was a wonderful experience.
“Then a new generation arrived almost everywhere. In its entirety, I became captain of that team, in which I had to always be in the lead in all the preparations to get them to follow me. Both were wonderful teams, (but) in one I had a greater role than in the other.”
Those Cuban teams were characterized by players like Ruiz, who could seemingly jump out of the gym, were extremely quick and could hit the ball as hard as could be imagined.
But to focus on Ruiz’s accomplishments solely with the Cuban national team would be to shortchange her legacy.
Ruiz was an outstanding club player in Cuba, Italy and Russia. She played for Reggio Calabria in Italy from 1996-2000 and the Russian club Uralochka-NTMK in 2004-05 and 2012-14. She helped Reggio Calabria finish second at the Italian Championships in 1999 and 2000, and in 2000 won the Italian Cup, the Italian Super Cup, and the CEV Cup. In 2005 she led Uralochka-NTMK to the Russian Super League title.
Ruiz was born in Camaguey, in the interior of the island 45 years ago. Cuba’s third largest city has an interesting history, in that it was moved to its present inland location 13 years after it was founded on the northern coast in 1515. This move was due to relentless attacks from Caribbean pirates.
At just the age of 8, Ruiz picked up a volleyball and was immediately hooked.
“The one who had the greatest influence on me was my mother, who loved to play, plus my family is very ‘sporty’ so they encouraged us to play sports.”
Ruiz from a young age exhibited the characteristics that typified most of the top Cuban players of her era, great jumping ability, and, as she put it, “speed in movements.”
Her idols growing up included Josefina Capote, Mercedes Perez, Mercedes Pomares and future teammate and IVHF fellow Hall of Famer Mireya Luis, because almost all of them played outside hitter like Ruiz.
Ruiz was only 18 when she made the national team that headed to Atlanta and won the second of those three gold medals.
“I really realized that I could be at the level of any athlete (in the world) who played the same position as I did, after making the regular team of the Cuban national team.”
From day one Ruiz was constantly under pressure to fend off fellow hungry “Caribbean Girls,” to keep her slot on the national team.
“My toughest individual opponents were all the players that played the same position in and out of Cuba,” Ruiz related.
Although always laser focused on overall team objectives, Ruiz was still recognized for her achievements as a terminal player. She was named most valuable player at the 2002 Pan-American Cup, the 2003 NORCECA Championship, and in the 2004/05 Russian Super League. She was named best spiker at the 2004 FIVB World Grand Prix and the 2005 Pan American Cup, and best scorer at the 2002 World Championships.
Her playing accomplishments were extraordinary, but the leadership qualities she exhibited as captain of the national team, no doubt caught the eye of influential members of the International Olympic Committee, and in 2008, Ruíz was elected as an athlete member of the IOC, serving from 2008-16. She was also named to the IOC Sport and Active Society Commission.
“Being a member of the International Olympic Committee was a wonderful experience,” Ruiz said. “It taught me to see sport from another point of view, and with a different perspective. We athletes are not aware of all the work that is being done behind us to carry out the Olympic, World, Pan American, and Central American Games that allow us, in a safe healthy and respectful environment to share, socialize, learn about cultures, forms of life, new athletes and thus creating new friendships.”
The Caribbean Girls brought worldwide attention to Cuba in that golden decade from 1990-2000, and to their credit they have been rewarded by the Hall for the collective and individual excellence.
Yamilka Ruiz has exhibited both, and a touch of class as well.
“I still can’t believe it, it’s unimaginable for me,” Ruiz exclaimed. “I never played for recognition. I always did it to have fun, enjoy, and win. It’s an award that many people in the world say, ‘it’s well deserved.’ I think so because I’m representing my other colleagues that together we won everything! I’m happy.
“Thank the world for choosing me!”
Look for more stories this week on Olympic gold medalist and four-time Olympian Phil Dalhausser (United States, beach male player); two-time Olympic medalist and five-time FIVB World Tour Champion Larissa França Maestrini (Brazil, beach female player); and longtime administrator within various national and international federations and the first member to represent Thailand in the IVHF, Shanrit Wongprasert (Thailand, leader).
Click here for ticket information and if you won’t be at the ceremonies they’ll be streamed at IVHF.org