Coming into this tournament, one of the U-23 squads had never before played a game together, had practiced thinking they’d be playing in separate divisions, and is now sitting in the semifinals with wins to their name and smiles on their faces. This team is, of course, Venezuela Mixed.
Anyone familiar with international ultimate events knows that visa problems are a common occurrence. Jeremy Norden, who has helped immensely with the Colombian junior teams, told me at the beginning of the tournament that his teams never were able to come to a tournament with their full roster due to visa issues. I Am Ultimate’s Tushar Singh explained to me that part of it has to do simply with international relations – nations friendly with the USA and its allies typically have no problem with visas, for those that aren’t, it’s a different story. Venezuela had enough issues that they were forced to totally re-do the teams sent to Toronto for the championships.
I spoke with coach Juan Juliyn Peia Gonzylez (or JJ) to get the backstory on this unfortunate situation. Over nine months ago, the Venezuela U-23 Open and Women’s teams were formed and began training and preparing for Worlds. However, with one week left before the tournament, visa and monetary issues mounted, and support from the government never arrived. JJ and fellow coach Jose Rodriguez (a 32 year veteran of Venezuelan ultimate!) were faced with a tough decision, eventually deciding to assemble the players able to afford their own trips together as a mixed team. This would allow them to bring a deeper roster made up of the best players from each division. This, however, left coach Rodriguez a task of coming up with a different strategy, “because magic” – that was their exact words. Magic, JJ would go on to explain, and the heart and soul of their home country.
Fast forward to early Friday afternoon, where Venezuela is in the process of taking down the Japanese mixed team during power pool play. Yes, a team that had no experience playing together going into Monday, is about to defeat one of the top seeds in the Mixed division – the same Japanese team that finished Pool A by beating the Canadian team on opening day. The Venezuelan maroon is flying through the air, grabbing discs as the Japanese try to get past their zone. After the win, the celebration and excitement from their players and coaches is unlike any other I’ve seen this week, with the big Venezuelan flag flying to greet the player who caught the winning goal. That is heart and soul if I’ve ever seen it – with a little bit of magic thrown in as well.
Leading the way are two players who haven’t played much international ultimate before. Ray Santoyo and Vanessa Carrizo are their names, and when they were talking to me – in between pauses for laughs and smiles with teammates after the Japanese victory – that heart and soul factor JJ mentioned was even more prevalent. They both said the team has embraced their new identity and have truly enjoyed the success because of it. Santoyo finished that game against Japan with 4 defensive plays and assists, and tacking on two goals as well. Carrizo finished with 2 goals and an assist – together helping to lead the team to new heights.
All this after a rough start to the tournament on Monday – against the USA, of all teams. Carrizo would tell me more about how difficult that game was for them as a team. They felt relaxed going into it, but quickly found that they had timing and trust issues. Now, though? Carrizo proudly told me that the team is playing with passion. Not only that, but each game the team finds themselves going down the field with “mind, soul, heart, skill, and of course spirit.” Hearing that, as her smile grew across her face, with the celebration of the win against Japan still continuing behind her, was a great moment.
Venezuela will go into the semifinals today to face the USA team in a rematch. However, the results of that game frankly aren’t important to their story. What is important is that while this Venezuelan team had never before played a tournament together, they’ll fly home having done so much more. Lead by two coaches, JJ and Jose, who brought the team together not knowing how the week would turn out and players like Ray and Vanessa, who have lead the team on and off the field, even after a difficult first game.
While walking away, I heard JJ talking to a Canadian official. The official asked what the plan was, and how he’d be going forward. He said rest, food – they had nearly two hours until their next game – but ended it with “everybody’s safe and happy… we’re okay.” Talk about heart and soul.
Feature photo by the official U-23 World Championships photographers
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