Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Volunteering at the Euro2015 Wheelchair Basketball Championships - Team Liaison for Italy

What an experience!!

I don't think words can really sum up the amazing two weeks I had in Worcester, working as a Team Liaison for Italy at the European Wheelchair Basketball Championships. Not only for being involved at an international event, but also for being part of a very passionate Italian team! For many players, this was a lifelong dream, an opportunity to qualify for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The Italians made me feel very much part of the team which was illustrated on the second day already when I was handed an Italian shirt. I felt very proud being given this but of course it had to go in the wash at some stage. The moment I was seen not wearing the blu e bianco, I was asked why I'm not wearing it. Replying that it was in the wash wasn't a good enough reason and I was quickly told that washing could be done at night - advise I soon took on board :-) I felt very much embraced in being part of the Azzurri spirit already!

Two things I learned about the Italians within the first couple of days is that one, they're very passionate and two, they love their coffee! Not any old coffee though, Italian coffee made from a Moka! It's fair to say I've been converted having been invited for one on numerous occasions throughout the fortnight. I was even given a lesson on how to make it - I think that was the main reason in the end, so that I could serve them :-) Not that I would have had a problem in doing so though - they were some of the most amazing people I've ever had the privilege to meet and work with.

Originally I was appointed as Team Liaison for the Men's team, but on arrival I was informed that the ladies team's liaison wasn't going to arrive until late on Friday night. That meant that I had to work with the ladies team for a few days as well which despite being very challenging and demanding at times, I thoroughly enjoyed! I guess it's fair to say that the expectancy to qualify for Rio wasn't as high for the ladies and as heavy on their shoulders as it was for the men and despite not being one of Europe's strongest nations, they had a great team spirit and never short of a joke or two! It was thanks to them that my Italian got a bit of a kick start as a few of the girls were very quick to teach me some Italian. So much for thinking after the first couple of days that most of them couldn't speak any English!! It was a pleasure working with them, and even after Sonja arrived, they still embraced me as part of their team as well.

It didn't take long to be embraced as being part of the team
Such was the experience that I could probably write a book about it, so I'll rather try and summarise as much as possible on here with a link or two to more stories, experiences and my opinion and views on the event itself and what I thought was well organised as against some improvements that could perhaps be done to make it even better. Overall, I thought it was brilliantly organised though and a lot of credit should go to the organisers and everyone involved. Of course not everything will always run perfectly and improvements can always be done, but in my opinion I thought it went very well and definitely an event we can be proud of.

So, what is a Team Liaison and what was my main role some may be asking? In short and perhaps the easiest way to put it, my main purpose was to be the link between the team and the event organisers. Making sure that the team is always on time, whether it be for meals, boarding the coach, training, matches or anything else scheduled. I was also required to request changes in the schedule with regards to cancelling or changing training times, which of course has a knock-on affect on the rest of the schedule like transport and meal times and therefore we always had to bare in mind what impact this might have before even putting in a request. The biggest challenge would come in when the team doesn't get a request granted - luckily we managed to get over most of the humps but it's often difficult being caught in the middle.
Staying on top of the schedule

The role is very much about always being there for the team, acting promptly when given a request, having an answer at all times and delivering what's expected in order to make things run as smoothly as possible, occasionally going that extra mile like buying a surprise birthday cake or two, arranging unscheduled transport and being on call pretty much 24/7. In the end, it's all worth it!

Dionigi Cappelletti
The most difficult few minutes of the fortnight however, was having to deal with the sudden and unexpected releasing of the coach. Following defeat to Great Britain in the quarter finals, bearing in mind Italy weren't out of the competition yet as the top 5 teams qualify for Rio, Dionigi Cappelletti was ordered to fly back the next morning. There was an uncomfortable mood in the camp, understandably so. Italy lost the lead shortly before the end of the 2nd quarter which they were never able to regain, having lead throughout the match and in the process squandering a chance of automatically qualifying for Rio.

 Ahmed Aaourahi
Word on this wasn't known until breakfast - we all ate together but on my way back I was stopped and asked to arrange transport for Dionigi, immediately. I could see him stand in the distance with his bags. I knew straight away....... As I accompanied him to the minibus, Dionigi stopped and gave me a hug and with a brave smile, turned to me and said, "You're a good man Ben, thank you for everything." I struggled to find the right words to say other than "I'm so, so sorry and you don't deserve this" to which he replied to me as he got into the minibus, "That's sport". Pity though..... but a harsh reality. In the short time I got to know Dionigi, I found he's a great guy and no doubt a wonderful coach too and I wish him all the best.

There was no time to ponder on it though as it was back to business straight away. Italy were playing Israel for a place in the final play-off match for a qualification position in the afternoon. As was the case in the group stages, Italy won comfortably but unfortunately came up second best against Spain and in the process finished 6th, a heartbreaking one position away from qualifying for Rio.

Fillipo Carossino
Nothing could ever describe the emotions that ran through the camp, not to mention the players' who absolutely gave it their all. It was a bitter pill to swallow and for the second time in as many days, it was difficult to find the right words of support. Looking back at it now, I think it makes being a sport fanatic even more special. The fact that we love the thrill it brings but at the same time having to absorb the pain and sorrow that comes with it. I felt terrible..... feel for the players who've worked at least 4 years towards this..... many who'll never have another chance. But in the words of Dionigi Cappelletti, "That's sport". And that I think is what makes being part of it unique.

There was an incredible sadness within the camp - understandably so. During times like these it's hard not to question yourself as to why we choose to have such a passion for sport because not everyone can win. Too often a defeat leaves somebody distraught. The reality however is, every single player is already a winner. I've never worked within disability sport before until this event but it's one of the best things I have ever done.

Interview with Carlo Di Giusto
To see the work these guys put in, how easy they make every day tasks look, the skill they show on the court, all despite various struggles they have all endured through life but not allowing it to hold them back and most importantly almost always carrying a smile on their face. That is special and something I want to be part of a lot more. I've learned a lot through this fortnight. One being the fact that as most human beings, we are very quick to complain - I'll think twice before complaining again about the little things in life such as traffic, the weather or anything else which isn't a touch compared with what some people have had to endure - yet most of them carry a constant smile on their face and are living life to the full.

Showing their appreciation
Some players will unfortunately never have an opportunity to compete at the Paralympic Games again and some of them already announced their retirement. On the Saturday afternoon after the game Galliano Marchionni called me to his room and presented me with his playing kit as a thank you saying he doesn't know if he'll play for Italy again. I hope that's not the case! Matteo Cavagnini, the captain, also gave me a fine bottle of Italian wine as a thank you, both being very special moments!

That evening was the first time they were allowed to socialise and Galliano, who also have his own restaurant, treated us to some wonderful steak. We all gathered around the kitchen and with a cold beverage or two for the first time, everyone were relaxing and enjoying a laugh, yet carrying inside the hurt of narrowly missing out on a trip of a lifetime by one narrow result.

Incredible memories & friendships were made

Commiserations Italy for not making it to Rio but congratulations for not only the fighting spirit you've shown on the court but also off it. Thank you for making me feel part of your team and the new friendships we've built. Until we meet again.......


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