(© Calixto N Llanes)
Cuban triple jumper Leyanis Perez had already shown great potential, but it was at the inaugural Pan American Junior Games in early December where she first experienced international success. Claiming a convincing victory, it was a stepping stone towards bigger goals – including the World Athletics Indoor Championships Belgrade 22 – as she enters the senior ranks.
“It was a beautiful experience. I wanted to secure a mark from my first attempt and go for more in the subsequent rounds. I am thankful to everyone who has supported me, and it makes up for not competing in Tokyo,” reflected the 19-year-old after gaining continental gold in Cali with a 14.39m leap. She surpassed 14 metres in all her five jumps.
“Being in Tokyo and not able to compete was a big blow and missing the World U20 Championships was also tough to swallow. But my coach, mother, godfather and fellow athletes supported me in those difficult moments,” she added.
After jumping over 14 metres in seven local meetings on home soil, including a national U20 record of 14.48m, Perez secured a spot on the Cuban team for the Olympic Games in Tokyo and the World U20 Championships in Kenya.
Then, in only her second competition outside of Cuba, she improved to 14.53m, just nine centimetres shy of the 25-year-old world U20 record. But during her final day of training in Spain before flying to Tokyo, she suffered a muscle contraction in her right leg and could not recover in time to compete at either global event.
After some redemption in Cali, she has now set her sights on the World Indoor Championships, to be held in Belgrade on 18-20 March.
Leyanis Perez competes at the Pan American Junior Games in Cali (© Calixto N Llanes)
With no family sporting background, Leyanis and her twin sister Lidianis – a handball player – have brought sports to the forefront in their family in Pinar del Rio, Cuba’s westernmost province.
Discovered by coach Ochandorena during third grade, Perez joined a sports school at the age of 10. A tall athlete (now 1.88m), she trained in both the high jump and triple jump. At the age of 15, she jumped 1.50m and 10.77m respectively in each event and improved to 1.64m and 12.41m the following year. In 2018, she focused more on the triple jump and a massive improvement to 13.36m in that event opened the doors to the national U20 team.
Under coach Ricardo Ponce’s guidance, she joined the 14-metre club by leaping 14.13m in her first official competition of 2019. She ended the season with a silver medal at the Pan American U20 Championships in Costa Rica, her first international experience.
“The results did not come out as expected, but I enjoyed the experience and seeing athletes from all over the Americas,” she recalled.
As the Covid-19 pandemic hit early in 2020, she had already improved to 14.15m, but that would be it as she returned home and tried to stay active in her native Pinar del Rio.
“It was a tough year for everyone, but I remained patient," she said. “I would go to the track occasionally when we were allowed and did some conditioning to keep some form.”
Despite some setbacks in 2021, Perez looks optimistically towards her debut on the global stage.
“I competed in Cali with a nine-step run-up. My full run-up is 15 steps," she explained. "I consider myself as a fast jumper and there’s so much I can improve. I need to strengthen my left leg and improve my run-up. I have full trust in my coach and my ability to continue improving, one step at a time."
Aware of her event's history in Cuba, she is encouraged to maintain her country’s tradition in the women’s triple jump on the global scene. “I have watched videos of Yargelis Savigne (the two-time world champion) and Mabel Gay (2009 world silver medallist), plus Pedro Pichardo (Olympic champion). Mabel, now a coach, is tall like me and has given me good advice,” she added.
Her coach, Ponce, also has some words of praise. “She has the rare talent of being tall, fast and well-coordinated," he said. "She has huge potential, and we will guide her through her physical and mental growth.”
Among others, Ponce led Yoandri Betanzos to five world medals.
Off the track, the first year physical education student enjoys tropical music and considers herself a good dancer. On it, she has a bigger dream: to become an Olympic champion.
“Watching the Olympic final live at the Tokyo Stadium was a huge motivation for me," she said. "I want to become Olympic champion and I will go step by step to reach my goals.
"I have had many defeats in my career, and I have bounced back. I will continue to perform at my best and continue to bring joy to the Cuban people."
Javier Clavelo Robinson for World Athletics