MARIBEL VO: If you’re driving through the hip Santurce area of San Juan, PR you’ll come across a giant mural on the side of a building depicting a young Boricua with a bright smile, holding something shiny. Her name is Monica (Pweeg) Puig, and in Puerto Rico, she’s a national treasure. But in the United States, she’s a hidden figure.
Except for anyone watching the final women’s tennis match of the 2016 Rio
[CLIP]: Fourth gold medal point.
MARIBEL VO: In the final 10 seconds of her match against Angelique Kerber, Monica looks tired, maybe a little anxious, but collected.
Angelique returns. Monica almost misses it, but responds. Angelique returns again, Monica hits back. Angelique returns once more and…
[CLIP]: It’s wide!
MARIBEL VO: In what looks like a release of joy mixed with disbelief, Monica drops her racket.
The crowd erupts in excitement.
[CLIP]: Monica Puig has become the first gold medalist from Puerto Rico in Olympic history!
MARIBEL VO: She drops to her knees overcome by emotion, as the crowd yells “Si se puede!”
At this point in her career, Monica was ranked 34th in the world. Nobody saw her coming. This should have been the middle of her journey, with ample room to grow and win. But Monica’s story didn’t end or start on a pedestal. Her journey is a windy combination of sacrifice and devotion that only those close to her have been privy to, until now.
This is a story about what it takes to make world-record history, and about the things we have to be willing to lose in order to win.
You’re listening to the Pulso Podcast, we’ll be right back.
MARIBEL VO: Monica Puig was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, then moved to Miami with her family when she was a child. But her parents were determined to keep Monica and her older brother rooted in their Puerto Rican identity.
So at the end of every school year her grandparents would make the trip to Miami.
Monica: They would come to Miami the day before every single summer vacation to pick my brother and I up and fly us back to Puerto Rico to spend the whole summer there
MARIBEL VO: These summers in La Isla del Encanto are something Monica treasures to this day. They gave her the gift of staying connected to her heritage, and learning valuable life lessons from her grandparents.
It wasn’t until she was six years old that Monica picked up her first tennis racket, But you could say that tennis was already in her blood.
Monica: I did ballet for a little bit of a time, but, you know, I wasn’t really, you know, the pink tutu kind of girl. My mom had grown up playing tennis in high school and at six years old, she gave me my first tennis racket.
MARIBEL VO: It started as a fun mother-daughter experience. Monica’s mom would drive them to the nearby tennis courts on the weekends, where she could teach her daughter the fundamentals of a sport that she loved.
She started out practicing at a tiny park in the very Hispanic neighborhood of Doral.
Monica: There was always a wait. So my mom and I would go around seven in the morning. My mom would go with the big basket full of tennis balls and I would be walking with my little — um, I mean, it’s not really little — it’s a giant tennis bag that was almost taller than me.
MARIBEL VO: At six years-old, Monica was just having fun, but her parents were starting to realize that she had talent.
Monica: I think it was more towards eight years old that I started to play tournaments because my parents saw that I was pretty good. I liked the feeling of success.
MARIBEL VO: While most kids her age were going to parties, sleeping in on the weekends or hanging at the mall, Monica was on the tennis court practicing. Her life was revolving around school and tennis. But with limited time and resources, one of the two was going to suffer.
Between tournaments and practice, Monica was leaving school early or not attending at all. So when her fifth grade year ended, the prinicpal called the Puig family in for a serious conversation.
She said, “Do you guys believe that Monica can go pro?” And my parents said yes. And obviously it was what I wanted. And she said, “Well, if this is her dream and you guys believe in her, I think you should pull her outta school, put her into homeschooling so she has more time to dedicate to tennis.”
MARIBEL VO: That conversation with her elementary school principal was the first defining moment of Monica’s career, and set the stage for the next chapter in her life: Learning to sacrifice.
Monica: Skipping birthday parties, skipping sometimes family gatherings, I resented all of this because I missed a lot of my early childhood and the parties .
MARIBEL VO: Once the barrier of a full-day school schedule was removed, Monica’s routine evolved to set tennis as the top priority.
she would …
Monica: Wake up around six or seven o’clock–
MARIBEL VO: Have a quick breakfast–
Monica: Go to the tennis courts and practice from 9: 45 to 11:45–
MARIBEL VO: Then a 2-hour break for studying–
Monica: Straight back to the courts for another two hours then go to the gym–
MARIBEL VO: Head home for a shower and dinner–
Monica: Do my schoolwork that I needed to do–
MARIBEL VO: Then hit the bed and pass out by 9:00.
This was life for an aspiring Olympic champion. From the ages of 12 to 15, Monica’s big goal was the Junior Regional Tournaments. And as her talent and ability matured, she graduated to bigger and bigger stages.
Monica: That international junior tour is meant to kind of start getting your feet wet, what it’s like to have to travel week after week, it starts getting you used to the pressures of needing to perform at your best every single week.
MARIBEL VO: But it wasn’t just the ranking system that Monica had to get used to. It was also the loneliness of being a super-focused junior athlete.
Maribel: Did you have friends who also played tennis?
Monica: Friends and tennis is a very tricky subject. Nobody really understood why I was doing what I was doing, why I left school early. I lost a lot of friends.
It was very tough because there was a lot of jealousy that happened in tournaments. Whether you would beat your opponent, who was your friend, and that person would stop talking to you, or you would start getting success and people would pull away.
It was very lonely. And, and to this day, I mean, the amount of friends that I have, I can count them on one hand.
Maribel: Do you feel like you missed out on, on any of your childhood?
Monica: I believe that I missed out on the making friends part. I wish I had my own little friend group or somebody that can call up and say, “Hey, let’s just go and grab a coffee.” Socially, I felt like I didn’t really belong anywhere because nobody really understood what I was doing.
There were so many places that I wanted to go, so many family gatherings I wanted to be a part of, but tennis was always number one, and if there was something that needed to be done for my career, I had to do it.
MARIBEL VO: But that dedication didn’t pay off as quickly as Monica and her parents hoped.
Monica: I got blown out of the water at the beginning and it really helped push me because I knew that if I wanted to get to this level and if I wanted to compete against these other types of players, I needed to do so much more than what I was doing.
At the tail end of when I was 16, I said, “Well, I’m not doing that great. It’s not going very well.”
MARIBEL VO: Monica’s parents started to worry. They knew they had to decide fast if she would take the safer route — a secured scholarship to play tennis at a top-tier university — or the more uncertain one: A full-time professional tennis career. She couldn’t do both.
Monica: I needed to prove to my parents that I was really good, that I could win tournaments, that I was, you know, elite. I was in the top 100. I wasn’t really getting far in many of these, um, international events.
And just like that, I started winning. I started getting to finals of big tournaments. I started to get into the later rounds of tournaments. My ranking suddenly went from, you know, the nineties to the forties. And then by the end of that year, I was number two in the world.
And my parents asked me, “Is this really what you wanna do?”
And I said this is what I wanna do.
MARIBEL VO: Monica was sixteen years-old, staring down a bright future in tennis. She was finally ready to make the jump from amateur junior to professional. But there is a lot at stake for a professional tennis player.
In tennis, players don’t just get to join a team where they get paid the same amount just for showing up, like in soccer or basketball. If you win you make money, if you lose you might go home with less cash than when you got there. Which is why world rankings matter so much to professional tennis players. And why Monica’s parents wanted to make sure their daughter could actually make a living playing the sport.
Monica: And I turned pro at 16 years-old and by 17 years old I made the finals of the Australian Open and the French Open and ended my junior career there.
MARIBEL VO: Monica’s grand finale to her junior career gave her the fuel she needed to start her professional career with full confidence. But young 17-year-old Monica was getting stuck.
Monica: I won a lot of lower-level professional events but you know, again, the late bloomer Monica always got stuck somewhere. I was floating around below the 150s.
MARIBEL VO: Monica’s talking about her ranking in the Women’s Tennis Association Ranking System, which assigns points to players based on the types of matches and tournaments they win.
And why does this matter?
Monica: You don’t really make a decent living unless you are ranked in the top 50, top 30. So it’s really, really hard to make a living as a professional tennis player unless you are doing extremely well.
MARIBEL VO: And those first few years were slow-going.
Monica: There wasn’t a lot to, to spend and enjoy on other things. Everything was on a budget. Everything was always very calculated.
MARIBEL VO: But it wasn’t the money that bothered Monica, it was something else. Something so many of us Latinos can relate to: Being the only one. As her career progressed, she started noticing that she was one of the very few — if not the only — Latina competing professionally.
Monica: I was around a lot of American girls making it. I was around a lot of French girls, Russian girls. There weren’t a lot of Latinas.
MARIBEL VO: So Monica held close to her roots as best as she could.
Monica: As I got better in tennis, there were more events that I had to go to, more sponsors that I had to visit in Puerto Rico. So that gave me a good excuse to go back to the island as well. Visit family
MARIBEL VO: And of course stay connected to her culture.
Monica: Tennis brought me back to Puerto Rico, brought me back to my roots. Kind of made me fall in love with the island all over again and, uh, it gave me more opportunity to be with my family.
MARIBEL VO: And being close to her family helped Monica pick up on some valuable career-changing lessons.
Monica: Somebody that I just looked up to was always my abuelita on my mom’s side. As she got older she became more fragile health-wise, in and out of the hospital many times. But I had never once ever heard her complain about anything.
I really looked up to her as somebody who was so mentally tough and who was so mentally strong that when I was struggling big time in tennis or anywhere else, I did not have a leg to stand on to start complaining about anything.
MARIBEL VO: And that mental toughness served her well, because in 2013, Monica started climbing in the tennis world rankings, going where few Latinos in tennis have gone before. And at 19 years-old, she qualified for her biggest event yet.
Monica: It was a packed house. It was the first time that, you know, a match that I was playing was on TV on several channels.
MARIBEL VO: She ended up losing this match. But it was the moment that launched her career.
Monica: It was the first time that I had people kind of talking about me and the first time that I actually joined the conversation of, okay, who is she and why have we never heard of her before?
MARIBEL VO: She went from being ranked 124th in the world to 45th later that year. She started gaining so much popularity, the name Monica Puig was transcending tennis conversations, bringing attention from the likes of politicians and celebrities. Like the Governor of Puerto Rico and even Ricky Martin.
Near the end of 2013, Monica was one of only two U.S. Latinos inside the Top 100. And the higher the ranking, the higher the earnings. Which meant goodbye coach flights, hello business class! And maybe even finally enjoying some of that hard-earned cash and buy herself something nice.
Monica: My first present to myself was actually a Cartier Love bracelet. I had always wanted one.
It was pretty cool walking into the store and handing over my credit card and being able to buy something like that and walking out of the store and, you know, looking at it 5,000 different times because I was like, “I bought this for myself.”
MARIBEL VO: Armed with more confidence than ever before, Monica set out to conquer on a new stage: The Olympics. But in order to get there, she would have to contend, again, with the Women’s Tennis Association ranking system.
Monica: When I was growing up, no matter what sport I played, the goal was always the Olympics,
MARIBEL VO: To qualify for the Olympics, she had to be inside the top 50 players worldwide. But when she started the 2016 season, Monica was still outside of the Top 100.
As the Olympic deadline neared, The French Open was her last hope of improving her ranking. Then, in the knick of time, Monica got the points she needed to make the Puerto Rico Olympic team, only weeks before the inaugural ceremony in Rio de Janeiro.
She arrived at the 2016 Olympic games in Rio full of pride and ready to represent her native country. Which was a decision that she had made long before becoming a professional tennis player.
Monica: I consider myself 1000% Puerto Rican. My body is that of a Latina. My hair color is that of a Latina. My skin color is that of a Latina, and I very much feel attached to those roots.
MARIBEL VO: Monica surprised a lot of people with her Olympic debut. Not only was she unseeded and considered an underdog, she didn’t exactly have history on her side. She was representing a country that in 68 years of Olympic participation had never won gold, and only earned medals by male athletes.
Surely there were haters who didn’t believe Monica would get far. I can only imagine the mean tweets floating about as she marched onto her first match. But once again that mental toughness she learned from her grandmother came in handy.
She made it past round one, round two, round three, and all the way into the quarterfinals. Knocking down top-ranked opponents. She was the first Latina to enter the Olympic tennis finals.
Just the thought of being in her tennis shoes makes me tremble. But Monica wasn’t stressing.
Monica: The Olympic final was one of the weirdest days ever, obviously. There’s a lot at stake when you play a final, but that day I was super calm.
MARIBEL VO: Monica had already secured a medal by winning in the semi-final. So she knew she wouldn’t go home empty-handed. But there was another thing: A familiar opponent.
Angelique Kerber. The player she lost against in that fateful match that put her on the map back in 2013. And Monica was about to face her on that Olympic final.
Monica: When it came time to play the match, I remember it was Nadal against Juan Martin Del Potro. They were playing before me, and Juan Martin wins this amazing match. He comes out of the tunnel and jumps onto his team, and they’re crying, they’re chanting, they’re screaming. They’re super excited he made an Olympic final.
And all of a sudden my fitness coach puts his arm around me and looks at me and he goes, “In an hour and a half, that will be us.”
And my, like, chest swells up in this moment and I told him, “I need a minute.” And I ran to the bathroom.
Got on my knees and I, you know, folded my hands and I said, “God, please the only thing that I will ask from you today, I don’t care if I win or lose, I just want to enjoy myself.”
I walked out of the locker room. I put my blinders on and I was like, let’s go do this.
MARIBEL VO: The match starts, she wins the first set but loses the second. Then she went into autopilot.
Monica: I was so close to victory and I got really nervous. I spooked myself cuz I started thinking of the result.
And I was kind of kicking myself. I was like, “You see? That’s what happens when you’re not having fun.” I said to myself, this is the last set that you have in these Olympics. I said, you don’t know if you’re ever gonna have an opportunity like this ever again.
So just go have fun.
MARIBEL VO: Then she goes into auto pilot.
Monica: And I’m telling you, I blacked out for the next 15 minutes.
All of a sudden when I came to, I was up 5-0 Match Point, and I was like, “How did I get here?”
MARIBEL VO: In the final minutes of the match, Monica’s unstoppable.
Monica: Deuce Advantage. Deuce Advantage. She had opportunities to win the game. I had opportunities to win the match. And I remember that match point I was fighting so hard, and when her ball started to sail out, it felt like everything was moving in slow motion
[CLIP]: It’s wide!
Monica: And I couldn’t really believe it.
MARIBEL VO: Relieved and exhausted, Monica drops to her knees in front of an entire stadium.
Monica: It was kind of like that life flashing before your eyes kind of moment.
Except it was all the tennis memories that I had lived from when I was six years old. All the sacrifice, all the tears, all the hard work,
[CLIP]: She deserves this what a beautiful moment
MARIBEL VO: Monica made history that day as she became the first Puerto Rican to win an Olympic gold medal. EVER.
[CLIP]: Representando Puerto Rico, Monica Puig!
Monica: The crowd was going absolutely bonkers. They put the medal around my neck. And I just remember grabbing it and looking at it and just being like, what is happening right now?
I remember people chanting “Si se Puede”
MARIBEL VO: When the Puerto Rican flag went up, it was the first time in history that the island’s national anthem was played at an Olympic medal presentation,
[CLIP]: Ladies and gentlemen, the anthem of Puerto Rico
MARIBEL VO: It was also the first time in history that a woman representing Puerto Rico took home an Olympic medal.
And back in La Isla del Encanto, people ran to the streets in celebration, artists flocked to spray paint murals in Monica’s honor, and even crime took a dive for a couple of days.
Monica had done it. At only 22 years old, she had achieved her goal of winning a Gold Medal in the Olympics. But her luck was about to turn.
Monica: 2019 was really the beginning of the end of my career, I just didn’t really know it yet.
MARIBEL VO: Only three years after her shocking debut at the Rio Olympics, Monica Puig had no idea life was about to serve her some serious disappointment.
Monica: I started feeling this constant shooting pain going from my elbow down to my ring finger and pinky finger on my right hand.
It started bothering me more consistently in practices to the point that I, I could barely even hold my racket.
MARIBEL VO: Monica had a nerve entrapment, and needed to have surgery quickly, before it got worse.
Monica: It was very soul-crushing for me to have to step away from the courts for a very prolonged period of time. This was months.
MARIBEL VO: And it took a toll on her mentally. Her daily physical routine was replaced by rehab and rest.
Monica: I’m not the type of person that does well with just sitting around and resting.
MARIBEL VO: Slowly, Monica started preparing for a comeback. Healing from her first surgery and back in training, until her shoulder started bothering her.
Monica: I wound up having three surgeries. Everything else was kind of a snowball effect after that.
MARIBEL VO: Nevertheless, Monica was determined to get back on the court. And after an extended period of time rehabilitating her injuries, she decided to play her comeback tournament in Spain.
Monica: I competed extremely well, and I was very happy and grateful to be back. Um, but then the day after that, I couldn’t raise my arm over my head.
MARIBEL VO: After losing her first match in the tournament, Monica realized she had a difficult decision to make.
I sat down on the bed with my mom and I said, “Look, um, I think this is it because I’m in so much pain.”
MARIBEL VO: She withdrew from the tournament, and flew back home to meet with her surgeon. But she already knew what was coming.
Monica: He just looked me in the eye and said, “Look, I can repair your shoulder to make you live a better life. But I can’t repair your shoulder enough to make you a professional athlete again.”
I couldn’t hear what the doctor was saying. All that kept going on in my head was just, it’s over.
MARIBEL VO: Monica shared the news with the whole world during a tearful live interview on ESPN.
[CLIP]: Mi cuerpo me dice no mas y se que me espera un gran futuro, pero en estos momentos, no va a ser como tenista profesional.
MARIBEL VO: With her tennis career cut so short, Monica felt completely lost.
Monica: I think I cried every single day.
I wanted to win a grand slam. I wanted to be ranked inside the top 10. And one doesn’t necessarily wanna retire at 28 years-old.
I felt scared. I felt sad.
MARIBEL VO: This was not a match her physical or mental toughness ever prepared her for.
Monica: I went down a very, very dark hole because obviously, you know, tennis has been my whole life.
I was still in consistent pain in my own day-to-day life.
MARIBEL VO: Monica had more downtime than she’d ever had since she was 6 years-old, giving space for hidden emotions to surface.
Monica: When I was growing up, anytime I talked or complained about things, it was always like, if you’re complaining, then you’re not cut out for this. Tennis was largely known as this sport where you needed to be mentally the toughest person out there.
MARIBEL VO: Like many elite athletes, she was conditioned to put her problems and struggles to the side.
Monica: Just put on a happy face. But, deep down I was, I was hurting.
MARIBEL VO: Eventually, Monica started realizing that the same mental toughness that helped her break into the tennis scene, was not helping her break free from her injuries.
Monica: We were taught that Latina women are strong. And we’re taught that we can endure anything. But, you know, we also have to realize that we’re human.
I kind of realized that it was okay for me to let others help me. That I, I was able to let my guard down.
MARIBEL VO: She needed to find a new direction.
Monica: Okay, but what am I gonna do now? Like, what, what is next for me?
MARIBEL VO: That’s when her personal life finally took center-stage. During her extended rehab period, Monica had gotten engaged and started to make a different life for herself. She even freelanced as a tennis analyst on televised matches.
Later, after her official retirement from tennis, Monica had a beautiful wedding in Puerto Rico, and started to find her way back to herself.
Monica: I’m very happy I have this new life. I have this life where now I’m running marathons and, and doing Ironmans. It gives me a purpose to keep pushing myself. And it helps me work towards something.
And, uh, I’m actually probably the happiest that I’ve ever been in my entire life.
MARIBEL VO: Monica is now working for the Tennis Channel and continues to inspire people all over the world with her dedication. She might be gone from the tennis courts, but she will always be present in our Latino history and pride.
MARIBEL: You can subscribe to the Pulso Pod wherever you get your podcasts, and if you like what you heard, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts, and tell a friend to give us a listen Have questions or story ideas to send our way? Send us an email to [email protected]. This episode was written and Produced by me, Maribel Quezada Smith, editorial guidance and oversight from Charlie Garcia. Audio engineering, scoring & mixing by Charlie Garcia. Additional Audio Engineering & music composition by Julian Blackmore. The Hosts of The Pulso Podcast are Liz Alarcon and me, Maribel Quezada Smith. Special thanks to Monica Puig.