Champions and businesspeople

They climbed to the top of the Olympus of sports, but now their feet are firmly on the ground: Mireya Luis, Raúl Diago and Javier Sotomayor have jumped into the world of business in Havana as restaurant owners, employing all of the rigor and passion that put them in the ranks of the world’s elite sports stars.

Mireya won three Olympic golds in volleyball; Diago was an eight-time world champion volleyball passer; and nobody has equaled the high jump world record that Soto set two decades ago. As athletes, they were winners in everything, especially immortality. They dreamed big, worked for it, and attained glory. As businesspeople, their expectations are no less ambitious…

The most spectacular of the “espectaculares morenas del Caribe” (“spectacular Caribbean girls”), as Cuba’s women volleyball players were dubbed, is a nature lover. At her home in Fontanar, she has a 350-square meter garden where she grows her own plants, with seeds from Italy. She even has cherry tomatoes. There, she finds peace when the little sprite of nostalgia for volleyball comes around. She really misses those meals with her teammates, she admits, along with the intense world of competition and tours in the era when women’s volleyball worldwide was summed up in four letters: Cuba. Now, the energy that she used to put into her games goes into her pizzeria/bar, Tres Medallas (Spanish for Three Medals), a longstanding dream that her husband, Gian Carlo Incerti, made into a reality. “I always dreamed of having a bar, but I never saw myself running one. Sports taught me how to work hard and to be part of a team, and those virtues work for me as a businesswoman. But operating a restaurant is more complicated, because a team goes in the same direction and a business has many fronts,” she says. Nevertheless, Mireya knows how to get along with everyone; she’s communicative, and her years on the International Olympic Committee equipped her well for public relations and gave her the security to say, “I don’t want to compete anymore; now what interests me is sharing.”

At his restaurant/bar, Diago is as self-assured and at ease as always. “I’ve always thought of myself as a businessman,” admits the former national volleyball team passer, who was nicknamed “The Wizard” for his skill and precision in leading the attack. After five years as a sports official overseeing Cuba’s volleyball program, he decided to try his luck in the restaurant business a little over a year ago. “I made my way into this world little by little. I was more enthusiastic than I was prepared, but I joined up with a chef who taught me and helped me a lot, especially in training personnel.” He doesn’t know how to cook, but he does apply much of what he learned in sports. “The passer is the core of the game, the one who leads, guides, and distributes. I played that position for 24 years, and I enjoy organizing.” Presiding over the Cuban Volleyball Federation made him into a businessman of sorts, and his work produced positive results. But all that is left of those times are good memories, lots of trophies, and great friends. “I work so hard that I don’t even have time to miss volleyball. And I aspire to excellence…” he concluded.

When OnCuba interviewed the “Prince of Heights,” his restaurant had been open for just a month. Soto’s face reflects the tiredness of late nights, but he knows that sooner or later the business will take off. He is a man accustomed to challenges: they criticized him when he sky-dived, when he put together a salsa band, and when he appeared in a movie with [Jorge] Perugorría, but he enjoyed every single experience, and that was that. When he decided to open a business, he thought about a gym, but then dismissed the idea. After considering several options, he decided on a restaurant. “Being a businessman is harder, even though sports involve a lot of sacrifice. Of course, this job has its advantages: now I can have a beer, chat with my friends, and devote more time to my family. I was a jumper from the age of 10 to 34, and I didn’t even like jumping,” the champ admits. However, that life forged his determination and the confidence that everything would come out all right. At 45, he is beginning a new life, supervising purchases, menus, image, finances… His restaurant still needs a few touches, such as a corner for displaying photos and personal souvenirs of great athletes. One of these mementos is a pole hung at 2.45 meters, the record that only he has broken in one jump. It reminds him that he was the best in the world, and motivates him to try to make his restaurant at least one of the best in Havana. An idea that inspires him: “If I triumph, so will my family.”

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