Cuban Judo Star Missing, Believed to Be Defecting

The Cuban national judo team prepared to return home Monday without one of its stars, whose weekend disappearance fueled speculation she is defecting.

Yurisel Laborde, a two-time world champion and 2004 Olympic bronze medalist, was not with the team when it arrived Monday at Miami International Airport for its flight home after competing in the Pan American Judo Championships. She has not been seen since Sunday.

The Cubans checked in for their flight lugging new mountain bikes, televisions, espresso machines and other purchases made during their historic stay in Miami. It was the first time in 40 years that a Cuban Olympic team in any sport had competed in this city, a hotbed of anti-Castro sentiment.

As she waited for a bike to be wrapped in plastic, tournament gold medalist Idalys Ortiz said she was proud of her team's performance. Like her teammates, Ortiz declined to talk about Laborde, who won gold in the 78-kilogram division.

"Of that, I don't know anything," Ortiz said.

Coach Ronaldo Veitia Valdivie said he trusted Laborde, whom he had trained since she was 12. He said he had worked hard to enable her to compete in Miami, since she was already qualified for this summer's Beijing Olympics.

"She wasn't thinking it through. You know how youth is," he said.

Veitia said Laborde's possible defection would be a great blow to her mother. As he sat among trophies the team collected at the competition, Veitia criticized the U.S. media for focusing on the apparent defection.

"You are giving more importance to one deception than all of the accomplishments of all of the Cuban team," he said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Zachary Mann said Laborde had not contacted his agency. He said she might reach out to social service groups, churches or an attorney before contacting authorities. A message left with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services was not immediately returned.

"There's so many things, you can't really speculate what she is or isn't doing," Mann said.

In March, seven Cuban soccer players defected at the Olympic qualifying tournament in Tampa. Cuba called the act "dishonorable" and a "low blow."

Laborde left a note with her teammates, but its contents were not known, Team USA President Jose Rodriguez said.

"It was never shown to me by the Cuban delegation," Rodriguez said.