July 17, 2015

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) A trip originally planned to hand out free shoes and study a different culture has turned into a living history lesson.

Vanderbilt athletic director David Williams and a group including 10 of his student-athletes are flying to Cuba in time to see the United States finally enjoy full embassy status Monday in Havanna for the first time in decades. It's a trip to a country Williams wasn't even sure they could visit when he suggested Cuba as a destination last winter.

''None of us knew that things would move this fast from a diplomatic point of view, and that's a plus,'' Williams said Thursday.

Approval for their trip didn't come through until May, and Williams said they know they won't be the first Americans to visit Cuba. But the athletic director who also is a lawyer says the timing of this trip allows them a chance to see the effects of U.S. policy toward a country in person, especially with Iran wanting relief from economic sanctions as part of the nuclear treaty reached earlier this week.

''Well remember Cuba has been under economic sanctions from the U.S. for almost 50 years, so you'll be able to see firsthand what it looks like when the U.S. puts an embargo on a country, a country that's 93 miles away,'' Williams said. ''This isn't something you read in the book about an embargo. You'll see what that can do to an economy.''

International trips for Vanderbilt student-athletes started in 2013 when university officials decided to partner with Soles4Souls after collecting shoes for the organization. A total of 15 student-athletes spent 10 days in Tanzania that year followed by a trip to Costa Rica last year. For their third trip, Williams wanted a trip to a country that no one likely would ever visit.

This trip is too close to the start of fall practice for any of the Commodores' football players to join, but Simone Charley, a two-time All-American in the triple jump who also led Vandy in goals in soccer last year, is going. The list also includes Georgina Sellyn of Scotland, a member of the Vandy women's national championship tennis squad, and athletes from men's cross country, lacrosse, swimming, women's golf and bowling.

They will be handing out shoes, touring the countryside one day and receive briefings from a University of Havanna professor on economic implications and a former diplomat discussing U.S.-Cuban relations over the years. But U.S.-based cellphones won't work in Cuba, and Vanderbilt officials are preparing to work with limited Internet access to post a daily blog update on their website during the trip that ends July 25 when they return to Miami.

Discussing the trip with some students, Williams said he realized none are old enough to have lived through the missile crisis or the Bay of Pigs incident. He told one student to expect cars they may never have seen.

''From what I've been told, I don't think they have any cars in Cuba that are newer than maybe a 1967. So you'll be seeing cars I grew up with. That's kind of cool.''

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