There are two major events take over my August every four years. One is the Summer Olympics where thousands of people come together from all over the world to put years of athletic training to the ultimate test. The other is the Lizama Family Reunion where 180 of my Cuban family members gather in South Carolina to put our love of family through the test.
The last day of our reunion usually lands on the opening ceremonies, making for a neat transition. But when my cousin Jorge brought his girlfriend, Spanish world championship sailor Berta Betanzos, to our opening night Cuban-themed cocktail party, my worlds collided in the most epic of ways.
I should start by saying that among beach days and golf outings, one of the events we all most look forward to is our own family Olympics. We’re divided into six colors, each one representing one of my grandmother’s siblings and their respective clan. The Reds are insanely competitive, The Blues are naturally elegant, the Whites are small in number but hyper intellectual so they team up with the Aquas who are sporty hippies. The Greens are earnest and talented and my family, the Yellows make an art form out of trash-talking and sarcastic barbs.
As we’ve lost our elders we have embraced our once-embarrassing color t-shirts with a fervor that would make us a joke if it weren't so sincere. Successful water balloon tosses and grabby toes guarantee four years of bragging rights. A sixty year old will knock a five year old to the ground if it means winning at musical chairs and the five year old learns life is tough—and long. Usually they exact the revenge at the next reunion.
Needless to say, if Berta was going to land in a family that appreciated ultimate competition, she couldn’t have chosen better than to date Jorge.
I cornered her as soon as she walked into the kitchen to grab a green cup. (Yes, even the solo cups are color coordinated. It's war.) I wanted to know everything. Not how she met Jorge or if they were thinking of getting married; she wouldn’t have been invited to the reunion of their relationship wasn't serious.
I wanted to know what it was like to be an Olympian, and I didn't want the 90-second profile version. What did it feel like to be a championship athlete?
Berta’s been sailing she since was 11 and caught the headmaster’s eye with her talent. She’s won gold in the World Championships twice and silver and gold’s in just about every major competition other than the Olympics. This year she's gone into the 49XF race series as a World Champion with her new partner Tamara Echegoyen who won gold at the London Olympics in a different category.
During these Olympics she's been competing against eight great teams whose strengths depend on the different and erratic wind conditions. She and Tamara finished in first place a few days ago and now she is in a triple tie with Brazil and Denmark as she goes into the final race on August 18th.
But back to our family reunion: After a few days of board games, talent competitions and cocktails and right before she headed to Rio, I sat down with her to get the nitty gritty. I was also hoping it would give my yellow team an edge on the resort lawn the next day.
How does it feel when you’re out on the water?
I really like this boat, the feeling I have in this boat. I can only enjoy it when I have to perform at a high level. But it’s hard. You have to train. You have a partner that you know will work to find a connection because it's really intense. We can work without speaking; we know each other so well. It's seamless when it all comes together.
How many hours a day do you train?
It’s not as straightforward as you would think. I train one and a half hours in the gym and three in the water. But you also have to train mentally and think about every meal you eat. Between all of that and upkeeping your boat, every day it's about 9 hours and we only get Sundays off.
Wait, you do the upkeep on your boat?
We love to take care of the boat because we want it to be fast, we want it in a perfect state. For the Olympics we get some help. But usually it's just us making sure it's in optimal condition, that everything is working as best as it can.
What’s been you're biggest challenge?
I think the worst moment of my career came in London 2012. I realized we were not sailing at our best. We had just won the World Championships in December and right after we started to prepare for the Olympics in the wrong way and we didn’t realize we were making the mistakes until it was over. We could do it better but at that moment we weren’t able to because we just didn’t know how to fix it. It was very frustrating. But I learned from it.
How do our family reunions set the stage for the Olympics?
For me it's really great — I was able to enjoy being here and doing all these things with the family. It was great because when I get there, I have to be focused on my sailing but I will have lots of energy and focus to do that. It will help me get in the right mind set. Otherwise I would be prepared and just sitting and waiting which can be awful.
Since Berta took off, the Whats App family text that we used to coordinate the South Carolina get-together is lit up with news from Rio, pictures and well wishes. From my aunts that consider sports a different kind of clothing to the most die-hard Olympic fans, we’re all excited and impressed with what she’s accomplishing.
Our favorite Olympian and my cousin Jorge should be coming through Miami on the way back to Spain. As I said goodbye I told her that I fully expected to play with her medal at some point and she promised she’d let me wear it.
What she doesn’t know is that I’m going to make everybody pretend it's an actual medal ceremony. See, the Yellows edged out the Greens to get their second consecutive Family Olympic win. It was an ugly win, but a win. Now all we need is the hardware.