By Yosley Carrero
HAVANA, April 10 (Xinhua) -- Cuban elite shooter Laina Perez, 32, has reinforced training sessions at a bubble site in Havana as she prepares to participate in the postponed Tokyo Olympic Games scheduled for July 23-August 8, 2021.
Perez won the gold medal in the 10m air pistol event at the 2019 Pan-American Games in Lima, Peru, becoming the first woman to gain the podium for the Cuban delegation during this regional competition.
Yet, these will be her first Olympics. "This is a dream I had long been waiting for. I feel a winner, already," she told Xinhua.
As the island nation faces its sharpest rise in infections since the pandemic began in March 2020, a batch of Cuban elite and Olympic athletes continue to train in bubble sites across the country, abiding by stringent safety guidelines and COVID-19 protocols.
Among them is Cuba's Pan-American freestyle wrestling champion Alejandro Valdes, who left home for the central province of Sancti Spiritus to train amid the coronavirus pandemic.
"Over the past weeks, we have reinforced training sessions. Everything is going well for the moment," he told Xinhua via the internet.
With just well over 100 days to go, sports authorities on the island expect some 80 competitors from the Caribbean nation to participate in the upcoming Olympics.
Out of the 42 already qualified, there are 14 track and field athletes, 12 wrestlers, and five shooters.
In addition, athletes from canoeing, artistic gymnastics, pentathlon, taekwondo, and rowing have also secured their spots for Tokyo Olympic Games, according to official data.
At present, Cuban judokas continue to gain points in international events, moving up the ranking for final qualification for Tokyo 2021 Games.
Meanwhile, beach volleyball, boxing, and baseball teams prepare to compete for the Olympic tickets in the Americas' qualifying events to be held in the coming months.
Ariel Sainz, vice president of Cuba's National Institute of Sports, Physical Education, and Recreation, told state media that the COVID-19 pandemic had affected the participation of local athletes in international competitions due to border control measures in many countries.
"Cuban Greco-Roman wrestlers Mijain Lopez and Ismael Rivera, boxers Julio Cesar la Cruz and Andy Cruz, and track and field athletes Yaime Perez and Juan Miguel Echevarria have major chances of winning medals for the Cuban delegation at Tokyo Games," he said.
The sanitary emergency has forced Cuban elite athletes to set up improvised gyms on rooftops and balconies to improve their fitness and performance while staying home.
On Saturday, the Caribbean nation registered 1,040 cases of COVID-19 and five more related deaths, bringing the national counts to 85,572 and 453 respectively.
Currently, Cuban elite and Olympic athletes participate as volunteers in an intervention study in Havana to test the efficacy of the homegrown Soberana 02 COVID-19 vaccine candidate, which has entered phase 3 clinical trials.
"Training hard with discipline and qualifying for Tokyo is the best present we could give to health workers, and in my case, becoming an Olympic champion for the second time," Cuban boxer Julio Cesar la Cruz told local media after being vaccinated.
Cuba has amassed 226 medals since its debut at the Paris 1900 Games, ranking first among Latin American and Caribbean countries in Olympic history.
With some five gold medals predicted to win, the island expects to place among the first 20 countries in the overall medal count at the Tokyo Olympics.
Pavel Otero, a Cuban sports journalist and commentator working for state TV, told Xinhua that Cuba will participate in the Tokyo Games with a small delegation compared to previous Olympics.
"In my opinion, the island could win nearly 10 medals in total with major chances in boxing, wrestling, judo, and track and field," he added.