In February, fencing coach Cesar Morales traveled from Boston to his homeland of Cuba to attend Pan-American championship games, his first trip back to the country he left more than 20 years ago.
While he was there, he saw a fencing team called Sabre and was so impressed with the skill of the seven women on it that he invited them to come to Boston. This weekend, his West Roxbury-based team, which is a mix of men and women, will compete against them in the Pomme de Terre games at Brandeis University.
Morales grew up in Cuba and has fenced since he was a little boy. He came to the United States to further his fencing career in 1995 and has been head coach and owner of the International Fencing Club in West Roxbury since 2010.
Fencing offers important benefits to players though the sport is sometimes overlooked, Morales said.
“Fencing helps with your focus, your endurance, your coordination, your balance,” he said.
With President Trump’s announcement Friday that he wanted to tighten travel and business relations between the US and Cuba, Morales worries that the Sabre team may not be able to return to the United States. He was devastated by that thought, he said.
“It doesn’t make me feel happy, you know, closing the relationship between Cuba,” he said. “Our hope is to continue to do this, and our goal is for them to come back.”
Seeing two such different teams from two such different countries bond over a sport, as he has this past week, Morales said, is a moment that he will forever cherish.
“Music or sports can bring together two countries so close but at the same time are so far apart,” he said.
Sabre, a professional team that competes on the national and international levels, has been around since 1997 competing in contests like the Pan-American Games and Centro-American Games where their fencers have placed bronze. The team is preparing for the Centro-American games in Colombia a year from August.
Sabre’s coach, Leonel Wade, has been working with most of the women on the team since they were 17. They are now in their early and late 20s, and he is gratified to see them come so far.
“[After] working with them for so many years, they feel part of a family,” he said.
Darlin Robert , 25, a player on the Sabre team, said she had dreamed of coming to the US, but did not always think it would be become a reality.
“I feel very happy,” she said. “It feels like a family here.”
Robert, who lives in Havana, said she knows there is a chance this could be her last time in the United States, if Trump’s attempts to tighten travel between the two countries goes through.
“If I can come [again], then that is fine, but if Trump decides to not let me come anymore, then I will have to adjust,” Robert said.
Robert’s teammate, Yaritza Goulet , 27, who also lives in Havana, said she is loving her experience in the US and is proud of making it to this weekend’s competition.
“All my hard work is paying off,” she said. “I’m going to feel very happy if I win a medal this weekend,” she said.
Her next goal, she said, is to qualify for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
And the Sabre team has left its mark on the American team.
Bailey Michell, 20, of Newton, who attends University of Massachusetts Amherst and has been fencing since he was 10, said having the Cubans here, even for less than a week, has pushed him to grow as an athlete.
“Seeing new techniques showed me where my own flaws are,” he said.
He has fenced outside the country, including in England and Israel, but it was his local fencing club that helped him better understand people with different backgrounds, he said.
Michell recalls sitting outside of a practice session when “one of them came up to me and said ‘besame,’ which means kiss me and they kissed me on the cheek.”
“There are little things that are totally normal for them but really weird to me,” he said, “But it’s fun to see. It changes how you look and interact with the people around you.”
Michell was finding the Sabre players inspiring.
“The sky is higher than you think it is,” he said. “If you push yourself maybe more than what you think is possible, then you can get to that next level.”