The 'Cristiano Ronaldo of volleyball' explains how he's developed his winning mentality, what it was like to debut for Cuba aged 14 and why he feels different from the Portuguese star.
Wilfredo Leon Venero is arguably the best volleyball player on the planet.
The Sir Safety Perugia and Poland outside hitter has even been compared to Cristiano Ronaldo, given his status as a superstar in the sport, his major honours, and athleticism.
Leon is 2.03m tall and, thanks to a powerful vertical jump and impressive spiking efficiency, can be devastating to his opponents.
Born in Santiago de Cuba, he was a precocious talent, making his debut with the Cuban national senior team at just 14 years old.
The 'Lion King' became the team's youngest captain at 17 and won silver at the World Championships in Italy along with other players from the so-called 'Generation of Miracles' such as Yoandi Leal and Robertlandy Simon.
In 2012, Leon left Cuba and the national team after receiving offers to play abroad before joining Zenit Kazan in Russia.
In 2015, he received Polish citizenship and made his debut for his new country in 2019, winning bronze at the CEV European Championships and finishing second in the FIVB World Cup.
As volleyball competitions have been suspended worldwide due to the coronavirus outbreak, the four-time CEV Champions League winner (and two-time Most Valuable Player) is currently at home in Warsaw with his wife and two children.
How do you feel during these challenging times?
It’s a very difficult time because we can’t train properly. Volleyball is a team sport and now we can’t practise together. At home I’m trying to follow the training plans from my fitness coach, but the workload is significantly different. I can do some isometric exercises, but I can’t do squats with heavy weights. As far as the ball is concerned, I've basically never touched it, especially here in Poland where I only have limited space in my garage. Due to the quarantine, I can’t leave home for two weeks and I can’t play with the ball inside otherwise I risk damaging some valuable stuff. I also have a little daughter and a little son, so it’s very hard!
A lot of people miss playing sport right now. How did you take your first steps?
I was a very active kid, I loved to play, I didn’t live a sedentary life like I do now! Both my parents were working and every time they came home, they saw I still had a lot of energy to play and do other things. They realised they needed to find a way to wear me down a bit. My mum (Alina Venero Boza) used to be a volleyball player and decided to talk with her former coach and she took me to train with a women’s team. I was six or seven years old and I thought it was a good opportunity to meet older kids.
How did you manage to make your debut in the Cuban national team aged only 14?
At nine years old, I started to train with other male athletes of more or less my age, I started to train with proper balls, I competed in local tournaments and then when I was 11 I represented Cuba for the first time in a tournament abroad, in Venezuela, in 2005 or 2006. We won that tournament and I was able to play well and stand out.
In Cuba, I managed to win six consecutive national tournaments in different age classes and that gave me the chance to be noticed by coaches of the junior national team. They offered me to train in Havana, in the National Sport Centre which is home to the best athletes in the country. I was very young and some people questioned if it was the right age.
My parents sat down with me, asked me if I really wanted that and I told them that the biggest dream for an athlete was to represent his nation and go to the Olympic Games. So they said yes and reminded me that I had to stay there alone because I’m from Santiago de Cuba, which is more than one hour away by plane.
In the junior team I trained really hard. I played for the second time in an international tournament although it was a disaster and we finished 13th. I learned a lot from that experience and I came back to the Cuban league much stronger, scored many points and the senior national team coach decided to call me up despite my young age. I was a kid and, of course, I was very happy to receive that call. Everybody dreams of playing with the national team… I couldn’t believe it, I was a kid, but I wasn’t scared and I said yes.
When I was 14, my coach told me I was ready to play. We had a few games behind closed doors, against Serbia, China… I played very well, I had a hitting rate of over 40 per cent, not bad for a 14-year-old. I made my debut in the [FIVB] World League in 2008 against Russia and I think I scored 13 points. Everyone was saying that that was a very good start for a kid so young. Even if we didn’t do well in that campaign, I was feeling good. It was my first experience with the senior team and I ended up becoming a regular which was quite an achievement.
How did that experience help shape your character?
That experience allowed me to develop and grow mentally really quickly. When I was 13-14, my team-mates were 23, 24, 27… some veterans were even 29 years old. I had to learn to live with that, even with some jokes too heavy for a kid of my age at that time. It made my character stronger, it gave me the discipline and the tools to live in this world, and made me understand which was the right path to follow.
How strong is the volleyball tradition in Cuba and who was your idol when you were growing up?
My idol was former Cuban national team player Joel Despaigne, one of the best ‘bomberos’ (spikers) ever. Volleyball has always been very popular in Cuba. In my case, my mum was a former player. She gave me advice and I showed I had potential for this sport.
In 2010, a young Cuban team including yourself, Leal and Simon won silver at the Worlds. How strong was that team?
That team was fairly young but very solid and determined despite the lack of experience. When we stepped onto the court, our first thought was about winning regardless of how much we could train together and what we had to endure in Cuba at that time. We were ready to overcome every obstacle. It’s true that if we'd had more opportunities that team could have been very competitive on the international stage.
At the same time, I have to say that I could make my debut with the national team when I was so young because some of the more experienced players left the team and I had the opportunity to show what I was able to do.
How hard was it leaving Cuba?
It wasn’t really about my personal preferences... Let’s say it wasn’t very easy to continue with the national team. Even Simon revealed in an interview the amount of sacrifices that Cuban athletes had to face, especially in the national centre. I remember there was a time that whenever I needed some water to wash myself, I had to carry a bucket from the fourth floor to a pond and then take it back. It wasn’t easy after an intense training session of at least three hours.
The sessions were really demanding. Sometimes we were working hard eight hours a day and we were not getting enough calories per day for an athlete. Also, when I was 16-17 I had a shoulder injury and I needed proper treatment to avoid surgery which would have been bad for me. I didn’t get that treatment in Cuba as everyone was saying that I had to keep playing. There was a mixture of reasons, including the fact that my wife (Malgorzata) – my girlfriend at that time – is Polish and I couldn’t see her outside of Cuba. I wasn’t able to continue with those conditions. On top of that, I needed to play abroad to improve my level so if I wanted to raise the bar I had to take that decision.
Why did you choose to represent Poland?
First of all, because my wife is from Poland. My manager (Andrzej Grzyb) is Polish too and it represented a good option for me. It was one of the few countries I had the opportunity to visit on two or three occasions whilst I played for Cuba. When I decided to leave Cuba, Poland was a natural destination. I decided to buy an apartment in Poland and I thought it was a good move to represent this country.
I love everything about this country. My life here is nice, I've never had any kind of problems. The food is simply amazing… I like hanging out with people here, although I don’t go out every night. I like Polish fans, they are warm and passionate and here volleyball is as popular as football. So I saw they have a good team and the country loves its players. I have Polish citizenship, I have a Polish passport. I am and I feel Polish.
How is your grasp of the language?
I think I can speak Polish well enough for people to understand me, but I’m still learning new words every day as I talk with my wife and watch TV. On top of Spanish, I also can communicate in Italian, English and Russian.
Cuba, Poland, Italy: what do these three countries represent for you?
Cuba is where I grew up, I have many friends there, my family… It’s where I’ve developed as a man and as a player and it will always have a place in my heart.
Italy is the place where I work and I try to give my best to make my fans happy. Poland is my present and my future. Everything I do in this moment is for this country.
Why did you choose to play for a club in Italy?
The Italian league is currently the best in the world and I wanted to test myself and change from my routine in Russia.
"I only prepare to win gold, not for silver or bronze. I train to win and winning takes you to gold."
How does it feel to be the superstar of volleyball?
Actually, I don’t think of myself this way. I try to be the most humble and simple person I can be and, if I can, I always try to accommodate requests. I like to be with other people and make jokes. I try to forget about my position in the world of volleyball and I want to show that I can keep the same personality I grew up with.
How do you feel to be called the Cristiano Ronaldo of volleyball?
It's a nice comparison. I’m glad that all the work I’ve put in on and off the court is being recognised. This motivates me to continue to do my best.
How similar or different do you feel compared to him?
I don’t know a lot about his private life and I only follow him as an athlete. I’ve read that he’s very strict about his sleeping time and food intake. I would say that I like to have more freedom and I don’t put many restrictions on myself. I feel more ‘liberal’, which doesn’t mean that I’m not professional.
Cristiano can jump 2.65m with his head, you can touch 3.74m with your hand: who would win a jumping contest?
If it’s a matter of touching something high, I would win 100 per cent. If we look at how high we can jump from the ground, I think we would be similar.
Both of you can stay in the air longer than other athletes. How have you developed this ability?
Sometimes I’m aware of this ‘little pause’ while I’m in the air and I see the wall lowering before I hit the ball… I don’t really know how to explain it. Part of it is due to my hard work in the gym, but probably this is just a natural gift and I can’t really study it.
Javier Sotomayor is still the high jump world record holder, Juan Miguel Echevarria is touted to be the first man to break nine metres in the long jump. How do you explain Cuba’s prowess in jumping?
Yes, it’s true, Cubans are recognised around the world as great jumpers. I think it’s 50-50, a bit of genetics and a bit of hard work. In Cuba, the training sessions are really intense. When I was 16-17, I was doing squats of 180-200kg, which is a lot for a kid. I also remember some gruelling sessions with a series of jumps on boxes of different height.
"My goal is to be the player with most Champions League wins at club level. As for my national team, I aim for as many gold medals as I can."
You equalled Ivan Zaytsev’s fastest serving record (134km/h). What’s your secret?
I don’t really have a secret, I just try to throw the ball well and then hit it as hard as I can. This season in training I recorded 135km/h and in the past I also hit 136. My average is between 125 and 132 and I can reach high speeds frequently, even when I don’t extend my arm fully.
What do you enjoy most: scoring an ace or scoring a point with a winning spike?
I feel that scoring an ace is something very personal, because it’s just about yourself – how you throw the ball, the run-up, the jump, how you hit the ball… Everything depends on you. When you spike, you need to rely on someone else’s pass, but everyone enjoys scoring a point with a spike!
You have already won a lot, with clubs and the national team. What’s your goal?
My goal is to be the player with most Champions League wins at club level. As for my national team, I aim for as many gold medals as I can.
What are Poland’s chances in Tokyo?
We have big chances. With one more year to prepare, we’ll have more time to gel and I think my team-mates and I are going to benefit from having more time with each other. The European Championships one year ago was my first time with the new national team and we gained some valuable experience for the next tournaments. The Olympics in 2021 are a chance for us to regroup and will help us to get better prepared. We have a good team who can fight for a gold medal.
'Only Gold' is the title of a song a rapper dedicated to you: can you explain your obsession with this metal?
I only prepare to win gold, not for silver or bronze. I train to win and winning takes you to gold.