As the first Puerto Rican athlete in any sport to win an Olympic gold medal, professional tennis player Monica Puig has become a role model for millions who dare to dream big. But it was the little moments she shared with her mentors long ago that set the stage for her success.
“My third grade teacher, Mrs. (Lisa) Figeuredo, and my principal, Mrs. (Nordia) Baldor, really helped me grow and develop as a young woman and helped push me toward my dreams,” she said. “Thanks to them, I am where I am today.”
Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Puig moved to Miami with her family when she was 1 year old. She attended St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic School from third through fifth grade, juggling academics and a rigorous practice schedule surrounding a newfound passion — tennis. With the school's permission, she often left school early to attend tennis matches, but never let her grades falter, due in part to her teachers who insisted on academic excellence.
On many days, Puig said her parents dropped her off at school by 6:45 a.m. so they could get her older brother to his school on time. She would sit outside her principal’s office. In those early morning hours, a life-changing relationship was forged.
“I would always sit right next to Mrs. Baldor’s door in the hallway, and every morning she was there before me and she would always come out and just start chatting with me, asking how I was doing, how tennis was going, always telling me to believe in my dreams and to follow my heart,” said Puig. “She is somebody who is still very special to me in my life.”
As her commitment to tennis grew, Puig’s tournaments took her farther from home, making it difficult to manage schoolwork and still make time for family, friends, and faith. Puig’s teacher and principal took notice and pulled her parents aside. Rather than encouraging them to modify Puig’s tennis schedule, however, they suggested an alternative that would allow her to pursue her tennis ambitions: homeschooling.
“They took the time to talk to my parents and to ask them if tennis was something that I could be successful at, and if this was something that I could do for a living,” said Puig. “They said that if I was really that good I had to give it everything I’ve got, because I only have one chance and if I don't take it it's always going to be that ‘what-if.’ Thanks to that conversation, it really took me to where I needed to go.”
Puig’s mother, Astrid, remembers the day well.
“We went to her office and we sat down with her and the only thing that really convinced us was that she believed in Monica and she just told us that we will never know if we didn’t pursue it,” said Astrid. “And she said, ‘Look, she can always come back.’ We took her advice and we never looked back.”
Puig and her mentors
After working her way up through the junior circuit with her powerful forehand, Puig turned pro in 2010. Her impressive record includes seven medals in the Pan American Games and the Central American and Caribbean Games. And in 2016, Puig made history at the summer Olympics in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, becoming the first Puerto Rican athlete of any gender or sport to bring home a gold medal.
Puig’s former principal, Baldor, said she is proud of the person Puig has become, noting that her story serves to underscore the importance of mentorship and support.
“When you get to know a young child who has a dream, who is committed and driven, yet simple, loving, caring, respectful, and spiritual — and they begin to express their dream for a tomorrow that hasn't yet happened — you have, as an educator, a great responsibility to mold that person, to guide that person,” said Baldor. “When we form those relationships, you never know how it's going to affect their future.”
Beyond giving her the tools to turn tennis into a career, Puig said her experience at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic School also inspired a culture of a giving.
“You learn to care for others and that it’s not just about you,” she said. “You need to care for the whole community. The school taught me that you need to make close connections.”
Puig took that message to heart, most recently organizing a fundraiser to aid in relief efforts after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017.
“My team, my agent, and I, came up with the idea of setting up a YouCaring fundraiser account and we started raising money for Puerto Rico and the relief efforts,” she said. “The platform that I gained after winning the Olympics allowed me to get my message out there and to also attract others who could help, whether it be the news outlets or other tennis players. We helped to raise a lot of money.”
After her season ended that year, Puig flew down to the island to help out in person, bringing with her Russian tennis pro and friend Maria Sharapova. Together, they distributed insulin to a hospital, as well as gas stoves, lamps, and propane tanks at a Red Cross distribution center. They also helped out families by providing water and plastic bags full of food, along with hugs.
“It was up to me to show them that I was there to support them just like they supported me when I needed their love and attention at the Olympics.”
Puig said she plans to continue providing service to her community. And she still returns to her former elementary school to visit the staff whenever she can.
“Even if it was just for that short while that I was there, they really put that first stepping stone down for me to walk this path,” said Puig. “Without these people in my life, none of this would have ever been possible. I owe them so much, and I’m forever grateful.”
Discover more from MassMutual…