Jenni Benningfield Pan Am Update

VandyMania last talked to senior forward Jenni Benningfield as the USA Pan American Games team had just completed the Boston stage of their training including "friendly games" against the Australian and Brazilian junior national teams.

Immediately afterwards, the team flew to Cuba by way of Miami for three exhibition games against the senior Cuban national team. On Saturday, they returned to the United States for several days of training in Tampa, Florida, before departing for Santo Domingo on Tuesday July 29.

On Sunday night, Jenni shared her experiences and some of her photographs with VandyMania. Here's her story, as told to Whitney D.

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I really didn't know what to expect. The complete opposite of here, probably. We were told we couldn't drink the water. We were questioning their food. We didn't know what we'd be able to eat. We were told we were probably going to be eating a lot of peanut butter sandwiches. So we got snacks and stuff before we went.

But it was a lot better than we all thought it was going to be. Cuba paid for everything for us over there. They really put us up top-notch. We stayed in one of the best hotels in the country, Hotel Palco. It was pretty cool. They had a little waterfall in the hotel. It had about four floors, a nice pool.

One thing that was different was how you turned the air conditioning on. When you walked in the door, you have a little place where you slide your key in, like those little card keys for hotels, and for your lights and your air conditioner to work, you had to put your card inside of it. Otherwise, you wouldn't have any power in the whole room.

The people were very nice. The food was great. The choices were usually chicken, fish or pork, and we usually got chicken. You got basically half a grilled or baked chicken. And we ate a lot of rice. They had french fries and a lot of cola and bottled water. We got bottled water every day to brush our teeth with. We had to shower with their water, but if we got anything in our mouth, several of us got sick from it.

They didn't really have a whole lot of ice, so to ice down our legs, to save our legs and keep them fresh, some of us would go dip in the pool where it was a little cooler and hang out there during the afternoons, because we had practice in the mornings for an hour or an hour and half, just kind of a light practice, shoot-a-round, go over plays. And then at night we played against the Cubans.

We played in a really really cool arena. It was pretty big. The first day that we walked in there, but they didn't have the air conditioning on, and we were all just dying of sweat. But it was really nice. It was a circular arena with two levels. It had a huge painting of one of their war heroes. The floor was kind of cool, with the international rules.

And there were always kids running around the arena. This was like a sports complex. It had a baseball field, and a huge field where everybody was running around. they knew we were coming because it was on national TV all three nights.

So when the people that were in there would see a big bus come, they would come in and watch us. So kids would be sitting on the side of the floor watching us, yelling at us, and stuff. A lot of adults would sit and watch us and were interested in what we were doing.

The very first night was very interesting. The arena wasn't full, but there were a lot of people there. It was a good crowd. They had a big ceremony for a women's basketball player that had retired. Both teams walked in with each of our country's flags. We were on both ends of the court, and they played both national anthems.

And they presented this retired basketball player and gave her a lot of awards. I guess she was one of the best ones they had. And then everybody showed their respect. They kiss each other on the side of the cheek, only on one side, so we went up there and showed our respect to them and to her. That was kind of neat. They called out our names and tried to pronounce them.

Then we played. We lost three games, but every night, we really got better. The first night it was a little bit different from Brazil or Australia, the teams that we played in Boston, in the fact that they were really huge. This is their senior teams. Some of these girls were 32 or 33 years old. It was a range, but it wasn't all 20-year-olds, like we are.

And they were big. They were very physical, very strong, very huge. This one girl was huge, and she was really good. Not tall, but thick. Not fat, but thick. It was almost like a shock. We didn't know what to expect. They were a lot more physical than the other teams.

The Cubans were the last team to win the Pan American games in women's basketball, and they're probably going to be one of the best teams there, which really gives us a lot of confidence because we should have beat them. I don't know if we should have beat them all three times, but at least probably two. We had a good shot and were close to them, but we beat ourselves by making stupid mistakes.

And the second and third game, we had a group of Americans that were -- I don't know if all of them were Americans but a good majority of them looked like actual Americans and they had American flags and stuff and they were cheering for us. So it was kind of neat to have maybe 20 people that were cheering for us, compared to the whole arena that was cheering against us.

It's all a learning process because we had only been together for a week. Not that that's an excuse, but it's a fact. But it was very interesting playing against them, with them being so physical. The refs let us play and never called anything. You could basically push and shove and grab and hold people. I remember one time I was running down the floor, and this girl had me completely by the waist and I couldn't move. Just little things like that. It was like football basically, that's what it was. They didn't really call a lot.

But that's what was good about it. We really had to realize the different style of play, and just kind of accept the way they play and change to the way they play, and there's nothing you can do about it; you can just play.

So it was really a good experience. I feel like we've all gotten better. Obviously no one likes to lose, but it's almost a good thing that we did because we not know what to expect going in.

And they started respecting us a lot more, especially through each game. They were really nice. They stayed at the same hotel. Several of us had talked to them, and that was cool, getting to know them. We had a translator that was with us all the time.

The last day before we left, we went to a beach about 45 minutes away. All of us went. It was pretty nice, kind of like a normal beach. Tan sand, waves and stuff. And jellyfish. some of us almost got stung. They had stuff you could rent like snorkeling and boats. It was pretty cool.

Then we went to a market where you could go buy things that they had, like cigars -- that's what they're known for. And they had shirts, and random stuff like that. It was cool, trying to talk to them and bring prices down and that kind of thing.

It made you think about what you have. At the gym, little boys would always come and ask us, "Can we have your shirt? Can we have your shoes?" We can't give it to them because we still need them, but some of us had talked about when we go to Santo Domingo that all of our extra stuff that we don't need anymore, we're going to give to the people over there because they need it. We have several pairs of basketball shoes that we won't need, but until then, some of us gave a shirt. I had some little snacks, like candy and stuff, that I gave them and they were real excited about that.

It was kind of wierd. We went to this old locker room, and there were windows to the outside. And these little boys had found where we were, and they were sticking their heads through the windows, listening to what coach was saying to us, and yelling at us, trying to get us to give them stuff. That was kind of interesting-- it was like, wow, these kids don't have anything, they don't have a lot, and here we have all this stuff and all these opportunities. It really made you think. It was sad, but at the same time, it was very eye-opening.

So those are probably the high points of the trip. But I feel like we all came closer together. It's been a grueling stretch of basketball, but it's been one of the most fun experiences I've ever had. I guess I've been here for what, 10 or 11 days, I think? And it's gone by fast. I didn't think it was going to go by this fast. I go home in two weeks from today. I'm almost sad it's only two weeks left.

But I know once we get to Santo Domingo, it's going to be a whole different mindset. Right now, we're all very serious, very focused, but I think it's going to be a whole other level once we get up there and know this is what we need to do. So we're excited about seeing all the other teams. It'll be neat to get to know other athletes who are there. Opening ceremonies on Friday is going to be incredible. I think it's going to be real cool.

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Photos courtesy of Jenni Benningfield. Click on thumbnail to see a larger image. Top Stories