By Chelsea Miya
Ricardo Echemendiz is a world-class coach.
With a slew of international championship trophies under his belt, Canada’s top volleyball teams should have leapt at the chance to sign the 31-year-old talent.
But after immigrating here with his wife Vernareette, 33, and daughter Jude, 4, in October 2006, the best coaching job Echemendiz could find was as an assistant coach for Ryerson’s men’s volleyball team. He said it was partly because he lacks “Canadian experience” and couldn’t speak English well enough.
But Ryerson’s men’s volleyball head coach Mirek Porosa said in the Canadian system “you have to have established yourself.” Coaching is not only about gameplans, but more importantly about the students.
“In university, you get students who may never have played at this level before and you have to be able to relate to that and be a good communicator.”
The Ryerson Rams aren’t the world class players Echemendiz is used to coaching, but he says he’s just grateful for the opportunity to live in Canada.
“They are not professional players,” Echemendiz said. “Here, volleyball’s just a way for students to enjoy themselves at university, not a lifetime commitment like it is for athletes in Cuba.”
He won bronze at the Men’s Volleyball World Championships in 1998, and he coached Cuba’s men’s volleyball team to first place at the 2006 Central American and Caribbean Games.
And like most professional coaches and athletes in Cuba, he worked two jobs, trained in broken-down weight rooms and biked to work everyday.
Tere are no multi-million dollar contract disputes where Echemendiz comes from because, in Cuba, sports teams are state-owned and coaches work for free, while the athletes are paid the minimum wage of $15 a month.
“We don’t have a lot of freedom,” Echemendiz said. “If you are drafted to be an athlete or coach by the government, you can never leave. You have to work until you get old or sick and can’t play anymore. You have no choice.”
Echemendiz dreams about visiting his family in Cuba, but fears the government will prosecute him for quitting his position as head coach.
“I’m afraid,” he said. “At the end of the year the team goes to Cuba to practice, but right now I can’t go. Even if I could afford it, you never know what might happen.”
Life is hard for Cuban athletes, Echemendiz said, but the real reason he decided to come to Canada was the birth of his daughter Jude.
“Everything in Cuba is illegal,” Echemendiz said. “In Cuba, you can’t go to hotels, you can’t enjoy going on a vacation, you can’t buy computers, you can’t even get a car.”
“I don’t want this for my daughter. I might work in Canada for six years and still not be able to afford a vacation, but at least I know that my daughter can do anything she wants when she grows up.”
His only regret is that juggling two jobs as an assistant coach at Ryerson, and a computer engineer at Nexicore, working weekends and holidays to pay back the money he borrowed to come to Canada, leaves little time to spend with his preschooler daughter.
“For immigrants, it’s very difficult,” he said. “I have to work, but I need to see my daughter as much as possible. When you have kids you need to be with them and to just hold them as much as possible.”
As a fellow immigrant, Porosa helped Echemendiz adjust to life in Canada.
“I try to take care of him because I was an immigrant too,” Porosa said. “I do what I can to navigate him through all the baby steps you have to take when you’re an immigrant.”
Echemendiz said he’s grateful for the help. “He taught me how to adjust to the culture. He gave me clothes, gives me rides back to my house after games and even helped me to buy a car.