Italy's Taismary Aguero plays through her grief

Aug. 17, 2008, 6:50 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) A love for her new country and a determination to win have helped Taismary Aguero keep her sadness at bay in Beijing.

The talented wing spiker for the Italian women's volleyball team is playing in her third Olympics. A savvy veteran, she's a big reason Italy is ranked No. 2 in the world.

Yet her trip to Beijing has been marked with sadness after she desperately tried to get back to her native Cuba to visit her dying mother.

She could not make it in time.

So she decided to play for her new country, her new team and her new life.

"On the outside, I want to compete to win," she said. "But on the inside, I am sad."

Aguero, 31, defected from Cuba in 2001 while the team was at a tournament in Switzerland. She sought political asylum in Italy, where she had played professionally and had many friends.

In Cuba, Aguero started playing volleyball at 8 and became a star as a setter for the national team through the 1990s. During her time, Cuba won Olympic gold medals in 1996 and 2000, World Cup titles in 1995 and 1999, and a world championship in 1998.

Aguero was able to play in Italy after the federation that oversees volleyball granted her an international transfer - despite Cuba's objection. However, she was not able to compete on Italy's national team without citizenship.

In 2006, Aguero married Allesio Botteghi, an Italian physiotherapist who works with volleyball teams, which led to her citizenship.

With Aguero, Italy won last year's European championships and she was named most valuable player. The Italian team qualified for the Olympics with the top finish at the 2007 World Cup.

Aguero had already arrived in Beijing when she got word her mother, 61-year-old Dolce Fedora, was seriously ill back home in Cuba.

Aguero, who had not seen her mother since her defection, flew to Europe seeking a visa to return Cuba to see her. When the visa initially appeared unlikely, she returned to Beijing.

However, when she got back to China it appeared she would be granted a visa after all, and she prepared to leave again.

But it was too late. Aguero was told that her mother had died.

"When I was informed of the possibility to fly back to Cuba, my mother passed away. I did not see her for eight years, but she knew that I was with her, that I made all my efforts to go there," she said. "This will be always an empty space. No one has any fault over this, things happen and you have to take them as they come."

While she was trying to make it to her mother's side, Aguero missed Italy's first match, a 3-1 victory over Russia.

"Aguero is an excellent player," Italian coach Massimo Barbolini said, "and courageous in facing the loss of her dear mother."

Italy finished 4-1 in preliminary round-robin pool play to advance to the quarterfinals in Beijing. The team's lone loss was to Brazil, the top-ranked team in the world.

Along the way Aguero has been helped in her grief by keeping in touch with friends and family via the Internet. Many strangers have visited her Web site to offer condolences.

And she has been comforted by a focus on her future.

"Italy is part of me. My present life is Italy," she said. "Cuba is my past life."