Jenni Benningfield Pan Am Special Report

Like any college student who spent three weeks of her summer traveling across the USA and the Caribbean, senior forward Jenni Benningfield returned to the Vanderbilt campus in the fall with a collection of souvenirs, photographs, and memories.

Among the souvenirs is the silver medal that she and her USA teammates won in the Pan American Games held in the Dominican Republic in August. And her photographs include images of the spectacular opening ceremony in Santo Domingo, daily life in the athletes' village , and photos of some of the faces and places that made it an unforgettable summer.

Last month, as she talked about the photos that she and teammate Jamie Carey of the University of Texas had accumulated during their summer travel, one particular photo caught her attention. It wasn't a photo of the tropical scenery or action on the court. Instead it was a photo of the Cuban interpreter who had stayed with the team during their five-day training trip to Cuba in July.

"This is our translator in Cuba. He only made like seven dollars a month," said Benningfield. "Each player on the Cuban team made $13 or $14 a month, which is a lot over there."

She paused, then continued, "One thing I wanted to talk about . . . After the championship game, it was like the Cubans had conquered the world. They just were ecstatic. It was more than just winning the game, because if they would have lost, it would affect them and their family. Their income would have been cut, they would lose opportunities, and they would go back to their country and be disrespected because they didn't win. This was a big tournament for them. So when they won that just changed their life.

"We were leaving that night at like one o'clock in the morning, flying into Miami. It was kind of wierd because one of the Cuban players came up to our head coach was like, 'Can I get on the plane with you all?'

"Obviously, it was illegal, and the coach was like, 'As much as I want to help you, I can't do that.' The girl was like, 'I have somebody in Miami waiting for me because I know the US offers so much more, and I can do so much more.'

"We were afraid that she was going to try to sneak on. But she didn't sneak on with us. I think she tried to sneak on with another USA team, and she got caught, and we don't know what happened to her.

"That makes you think, out of all that we have, we have to be thankful, because they don't have a lot, and they're willing to risk everything to have an opportunity to find something better. It was hard, because we couldn't help them."

Another pause, then she continued.

"After the game, I gave my tennis shoes to Brazil's center, and she was just so excited. They were used, they were worn down. If I gave the same pair of shoes to someone in the U.S,. people would be like, 'Eww, why are you giving me these?'

"But for her, it turned into a prize possession. We gave them a lot of our extra stuff, because we have tons of stuff here that we don't need. So there were some things you felt like you could do, but it was hard at times because you wanted to do more for people.

"Like after a game our coaches went and got Wendy's for us for a treat. We were sitting next to athletes from other countries that were watching the games, and they were looking at us and kind of in awe of us because we had all this food. One of the Argentinian girls asked, 'What is this?' 'Wendy's,' I told her.

"She asked me where is it, and I tried to explain to her where it was and how much it was, and she was like, 'oh', and looked aside. I could have eaten it, but after I looked at her, I walked over and gave it to her. I have never seen anybody eat a sandwich so quick, but it made her so excited and thankful. It was just a cheeseburger you can get for a dollar, but it just made my day, being able to do a little something."

Then the photograph of the interpreter from Cuba goes back into the stack of photos, and then it's on to photographs of the pageantry of the opening ceremony, the shimmering turqouise of the tropical ocean, smiling faces of teammates, and basketball courts with a foreign flavor.

But along with those memories captured on film, the memories of a Wendy's cheeseburger, a pair of worn tennis shoes, and a plea for help that couldn't be answered are etched on the heart, not likely to be forgotten.

Photo Links

Pan American Games
Opening Ceremony
Athletes' Village
Faces and Places

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All photos courtesy of Jenni Benningfield and Jamie Carey. Click on thumbnail to view a larger image. If you are unable to see the photos or click on the links provided please visit www.vandymania.com to view all photos.

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