Feeling at home in Illinois

Feeling at home in Illinois

By Harini Ganesh

“She was lost,” assistant coach JoAnne Russell said of Cuadra’s struggle to adapt to her new home. “A lot of things didn’t happen for her freshman year. But now she’s having a great time.”

Cuadra came to the United States to pursue her higher education as well as participate in the sport that earned her top honors in her native Peru. After arriving in Illinois, she had to make several adjustments. She immediately faced the cold weather, an opposite of the warm South American climate. She switched from conversing in Spanish to English. She had to adapt to the faster indoor hard courts when she was used to playing on the slower surfaces of clay courts.

Tennis has been part of Cuadra’s life since the age of 10 and she has earned the No. 1 ranking in both the under-16 and under-18 divisions in Peru. Cuadra thought Illinois had intense tennis and academic programs and contacted Illinois head coach Sujay Lama through e-mail and sent him a video of her playing. Lama sent an invitation for Cuadra to play for the Illini and went to Peru to meet her.

“She had a lot of passion for tennis,” Lama said. “She really wanted the opportunity to come to the United States and play college tennis and at the same time get a good education.”

In finding Cuadra, Lama discovered parallels between himself and his latest recruit; they both came to the U.S. from third world countries to get an education and pursue tennis in their college careers. Lama majored in political science as an undergraduate with hopes of working for the United Nations in the future. Cuadra is working on an economics degree and wants to work with the U.N. in helping developing countries, especially those in Latin America

“I saw a lot of me in her,” Lama said. “I also saw her desire and her good work ethic. It was worth taking a chance.”

Despite the passion and drive Cuadra exuded, her first year as an Illini was a difficult one. Expectations were high and she was put in a position where she had to win for the team. Everything was overwhelming and the sudden changes with the weather, the courts and playing on a team dropped her confidence level.

“I made efforts to get to know the team, the coaches and the training,” Cuadra said. “Now I enjoy talking to them more.”

Senior Brianna Knue, Cuadra’s current doubles partner, remembers her as being quiet and apprehensive at first. For the past year, though, Knue said she adapted “pretty well,” and in the fall and this spring, she has stepped it up and gotten more comfortable with the team.

“We’ve needed her to play well and she’s done really great so far,” Knue said. “She’s improving and really wants to work hard. We’ve had to push her and push her, but now she’s taken that onto herself and is pushing herself.”

Cuadra reached the level of play she is at now through working hard and listening to what her coaches and teammates had to say. Going home to Peru over holidays, she would work on her game and contact Russell about what she was doing and what she should do. And that, Russell said, is something she appreciates.

“The more someone trusts you, the easier they are to coach,” she said. “We can’t control anything anybody does over the summer. So when she’s writing us e-mails saying she’s working on this or that, I just love that girl.”

Knue has passed some of her traits onto Cuadra. Where Knue is a very vocal person when on court, Cuadra is quieter and more passive. As doubles partners, Knue feels Cuadra has opened up more in terms of communication. Cuadra has also become more organized and does not wait for people to tell her what to work on. She knows what techniques or skills need improvement and does so.

“I really like to work hard,” she said. “That’s the only way to reach your goals.”

The main thing that the team has noticed about Cuadra is that she is having more fun this season. One of the reasons is due to her doubles partner in the fall, freshman Shivani Dave’. Cuadra was still relatively new on the team when Dave’ arrived in August 2005, and the two found common ground as being the youngest players on the team.

“She’s got more of an introverted personality and it takes time to open up,” Dave’ said. “As I got to know her, we’ve become good friends.”

Both are from different cultures and use that as a target of joking with each other. Dave’ added that when she first met Cuadra, she was a very quiet person. Once they started spending time with each other, she saw Cuadra as very supportive and someone she could share a good laugh with.

And Russell noticed that Cuadra has been laughing more this season compared to when she first joined the Illini. Her comfort level has grown so that she is able to laugh at herself, her teammates and coaches.

“I’d much rather have somebody laugh at me than be all tense, and they fear they can’t ask me anything,” Russell said. “She was nervous about doing that last year.”

Cuadra has adjusted to life in Central Illinois, but she still misses Peru. She has accepted the food and weather differences in Champaign and Lima. And has even gotten used to speaking in English, rather than her native Spanish. But she has not gotten used to being so far away from her family. The longest she had ever been away from home was three weeks.

“First when I came here I didn’t feel anything,” she said. “But then I started to miss my family. I’m really close to my mother so it’s really hard for me.”

In addition to being without her family, she had to get used to college life. Knue said that she had some trouble being organized and being on time for practices. She added that although it was overwhelming for Cuadra to take it all in at once, it was normal for a freshman to get used to life on campus.

“She’s been on top of things a little more,” Knue said. “She’s taking responsibility for herself and not waiting for someone to tell her to do stuff.”

By getting more comfortable with the other players and questioning her coaches about how to improve her game, the gap between home and school has become a little less distant. The relationships she has established have enabled her to come out of her shell, play her best and work her hardest.

“I really know the team now,” she said. “When you enjoy who you are playing for, you feel more motivated.”