Back in March, I had the pleasure to interview Olympic weightlifting coach Ciro Ibañez, who coached Olympic silver medalist (Beijing 2008) and European and world champion gold medalist Vencelas Dabaya. Aside from his achievements, Vencelas was known for his crazy leg strength as shown in the following video where he front squats 200kgx5 at a bodyweight of 69kg!!!!
Representing Cuba, Coach Ciro competed in Olympic weightlifting during one of the most legendary eras of Olympic weightlifting which was in between the 60’s and the 80’s. Furthermore, he was one of the key personae who were responsible for improving Olympic weightlifting in France and Spain.
He is the co-founder of the CrossLifting federation in Canada which hosts four different sports and Owner of CrossFit Guerrier in Montreal where along with his lovely wife Abigail Guerrero (7 times Spain Champion) works on betting Olympic Weightlifting in Canada. Furthermore, Ciro has two children, one of them is the 11 years old Bryan who recently won the American youth open and also squats 225lbs!
Below is the first part of our interview along with its transcript. Please enjoy and don’t forget to share!
Taha: Please introduce yourself to our audience?
Ciro: My name is Ciro Ibañez and I’m from Cuba, Havana. I started weightlifting at the age of 11 years old. I made the national team many times and I participated in and won many international competitions. I won the pan Americans games of 1983 and 1984(Colorado Springs) and the Central American games of 1982 and 1986. I participated in one world championship, I was a national champion of Cuba and I held a few records from the Pan American championships. I defected from Cuba to Canada in 1987 and from there I went off of the sport for almost 10 years. I still competed in Canada a few times where I was a Canadian champion. In Canada, I competed nationally in 1994, 1995 and 1996. In 1999 I got hired by the Catalunyan Federation of Sports to help the Olympic weightlifting federation there. I was there for one year then the French federation hired me to coach the national team where I trained Vincelas Dabaya for four years, who became a silver medalist in the Olympic games of Beijing 2008 in China and won the world championship in 2006 and won the 2007 European championship. Furthermore, during my coaching period in France 300 french records in total were broken by all the members of the French national team. Afterward, I left France, for political reasons, to found my own club in Spain. Four years after I founded my club in Spain, our Club won its first major competition which was the kingcup. In three years time, I sent like 14 athletes to represent the national Spanish team in international competitions. Even today three of my athletes are still in the national Spanish team who are David Sanchez (69kg category) and his brother Manuel Sanchez (85kg and recently 94kg category) and Mouna Skandi (58kg category). Those are the athletes I built all the way up from the bottom. Other athletes that coached and that became successful are Ana Maria and Antonio Tarifa (69kg category) who became a European champion at the age of 21. All these athletes I built them up from the bottom and that’s what makes a coach proud because it is very easy to pick up an athlete that is already built like Ivan Cambar (77kg category, Bronze medal in Beijing 2008 for Cuba) and make them champions. So my goal is always to do better than the others.
Taha: How did you become an Olympic Weightlifter? Also, Cuba is such a small country that produced a lot of amazing athletes in different sports such as weightlifting, track and field, Judo, and boxing. What do you think is going on there?
Ciro: As I said many times in many conferences that I gave in the past in different countries, in Cuba like in Russia and other eastern bloc countries sports are a way of living unlike in the west and just because sports is a way of living there is also the economic situation which is another factor in our country. In Cuba in order to make a living you either have to do sports, be a good politician or be a good musician. The government also makes sure that the national governing body of sports is well maintained because is a way for our flag to be raised in the Olympics to show that we are a better society than the western countries. Is all about politics. Also, You don’t see many Russians or many Cubans who are generating top athletes in other western countries, that is because I believe that the training plans have to be associated with the current state of lifestyle and culture where the training is conducted. I tried that with one of my athletes from Canada, his name is Denis Garon who was a pan American champion before the Olympic games in Seoul. Denis used to say “Ciro, you have to remember that I don’t live in Cuba I live in Canada where I have to pay my rent and pick up my girlfriend and I have to have money in the bank, pay my credit card….” We did not have all this stuff in Cuba. In Cuba you don’t have to worry about a lot of these things. He was the one who woke me up at that time and then I had to adapt my training wherever society I live in. In my point of view as a coach, one of the aspects that makes a successful coach is the ability to adapt to different situations and environments. In my case, whether it is a Russian or Cuban program, I managed to adapt the strength component of these systems to wherever I live. That’s one of my big achievements and that is also part of the secret of my success. Right now I’m building my own team and a few years from now I’m expecting that my athletes will represent 30% to 40% of the national Canadian team.
Taha: That’s a great goal to aim for, and hopefully that will help put back Canada in the map in the sports of Olympic weightlifting. I believe that we have a lot of great athletes that can represent Canada on the world stage. Before talking about your experience in France and other countries which I find really interesting, that is because I didn’t know that you trained and prepared Vincelas Dabaya and I also had different information and stories about who coached the national team in Franc. In other words from what I heard, in France, they had an Egyptian coach, so this is interesting and I want to know a lot about it. So recently, me and you, before the filming of this interview we talked about one of Joe Rogan’s recent podcast where he interviewed Yoel Romero who is one of the top wrestlers and MMA fighters in the world. Yoel discussed the sports system in Cuba which seems to be similar to the Soviet system.
Ciro: It is similar to the Soviet system of training.
Taha: I also wanted to ask you about the connection between the Soviet/Russian system and the Cuban system. In their interview, they talked about how coaches in Cuba do practice sessions in front of other coaches that coach other sports so they can see if they have the talent for other sports and they also talked about the athletic developmental system in Cuba which is composed of many levels named as the following: Pre-Edi, Edi, ESPA and national ESPA and the elite level. So what is the Cuban system like?
Ciro: Yeah, various schools systems. As I said, I started sports at 11 years old and as kids, we all have dreams like the one of becoming a champion and we also have idols, in my case, it was Javier Gonzalez (110kg category) who was a silver medalist in the Olympic Weightlifting world championship in Havana, Cuba in 1973. We were about 10 kids in school and they selected few kids that have a general potential for few sports, in my case they first selected me for soccer after a couple of months they told me to change sports because it was not suitable for me, so they advised me to go to track and field, then from track and field they sent me to diving and from diving they sent me to track and field, and my coach, there was Guenal Perez a bronze medalist in the triple jump in the Olympic games and he told me “Ciro, why don’t you try Olympic weightlifting?”, then I went to Olympic Weightlifting and I immediately caught their attention and they kept me there and we were 60 kids there, out of those 60 only 2 of them made it to the national team. I was not lucky enough to go thru the whole Cuban system because only the top 3 in the national school competition receives a scholarship and because I didn’t manage to get a scholarship, I had to stay outside of the national system and train in my local club, then when I became a Junior I was already in the system but I got out of the system because I placed 4th then I returned to my club. Fast forward, I was lucky enough that one day they were doing a trial for the national team, and during the trial, the national team head coach noticed me(Ramon Madrigal) and he approached me and told me to stay here for one month for training. After one month they told me that now I am a member of the national team and you should stay and keep training with the team. So I was lucky at one point, that is because I was not in the system and that only the athletes that go thru the system in Cuba and Russia get to represent the national team in international events like the Olympics. So at the age of 17 I won the Cuban Junior national championship, at the age of 18 I did the world championship in Greece in 1978 where I came 5th in the 82kg category (145kg snatch 185kg clean and jerk), then at the age of 19 I did 160kg in the snatch and 200kg in the clean and jerk then it was bad luck for me because we had obligatory Army service in Cuba and for me to avoid it I had to go study in Germany which made me miss the Olympic games of 1980, it was one year before the Olympics. I lost those Olympic games, and I believe at that time I could have become an Olympic Champion, Peter Barzaco (from Hungary) won that competition with a 160kg snatch and 200kg clean and jerk. Moreover, Cuba didn’t participate in the 1984 Olympic games because of the boycott. Again, I was in great shape in 1988 but I didn’t get to participate because of the boycott. So I lost three the Olympic games because of political decisions, where the last two were due to the famous boycott.
Taha: Oh well, that was pretty crazy! So you have done many sports during your career. Track and field, and diving…. have you played baseball? Well, baseball is pretty famous in Cuba….
Ciro: Oh yeah, I played baseball in the street and also organized baseball.
Taha: You went to Germany….How long you stayed there?
Ciro: I stayed for three years, just for school then I came back home in 1981 and a year later I went to the world championship in 1982 where I came 8th. In 1982 I got 5th place in Moscow with the bronze medal in the clean and jerk and in 1984 it was the boycott so I ended up going to the Friendship cup in Bulgaria, where I got the bronze medal. Anyway, sports in Cuba and Russia and in other Eastern bloc countries have a totally different system in Canada.
Taha: It is really interesting because Yoel Romero talked about that. Only the top three survive to receive a special treatment in those systems. If you come 4th they will kick you out of the system. He also said something really interesting, the system in Cuba has a good and bad side, Number 1 doesn’t eat the same as number 2 and number 2 doesn’t eat the same as number 3 and number 2 is not allowed to hang out with number 1 and so on.
Ciro: I believe in that too, if you are a champ, you have to be treated like a champ and you have to live like a champ, and that goes in everyday life. You have a good job, you are at the top you hang out with people at the top you are not gonna hang out with people at the bottom.
Taha: He said that there was an Olympic center where all athletes lived and trained, so how this division was showcased in everyday life?
Ciro: In Cuba, in the national team, we had two residences, the residence for new people coming in and the residence for champions. We used to call that in Spanish “el comedor“(the dining room) and “el comedorcito“(the little dining room), so the day an athlete becomes a champion they live in the champion residence. It also creates an example/goal for the athlete to strive for. It inspires the other athletes to work hard to get to that level.
Taha: He also said they don’t eat the same food.
Ciro: No they don’t! The athletes who don’t live in the champions residence eat well too but the athletes in the champions residence has better quality food, a psychologist, etc, but if anybody from the champions residence “fall asleep”, you get kicked out because somebody else from the other residence who was training hard, will take your place.