Monica Puig made history in 2016 when she became the first athlete representing Puerto Rico to win Olympic gold and the first Latin American woman to win the women’s singles Olympic competition.
To continue our celebration of Women’s History Month and in partnership with the Women’s Sports Foundation, WTA Insider sat down with Puig to discuss lessons learned from her family, chasing a dream that seemed improbable and leading the next generation forward on and off the tennis court.
WTA Insider: Do you remember any instances when you were growing up where it was made clear to you that you were seen differently or treated differently because you were a woman who wanted to play sports?
Puig: Yeah of course. It may not be as evident in my story, on my journey to be where I am, but usually, there are some instances where people might take my dream as something that’s a little bit insane. Being a professional tennis player, giving up a full ride to a university when pretty much in my family, nobody’s ever done anything that extreme. It’s always been you go to school, you get your degree, you get a job. And for me, that was never my path.
Thankfully my parents were a strong support system. But other people might have viewed it differently, like this isn’t something that you should be doing.
It’s trying to destroy that label and create a new or better one for yourself. Breaking out of a box and just defining what the world has in store for you. My dream has never been to sit behind a desk at an office. My dream was always to be out there playing, doing something I’m really passionate about and that was sport, whether it was tennis or whatever other kind of sport. I knew that I had a vision growing up and I was going to work to get there.
WTA Insider: How do you do that? How do you normalize a dream and chase it?
Puig: It’s always tough because one never knows that they’re going to excel at their profession. But it’s all about taking that risk and being okay with the consequences because you never know if it’s going to work out or not, but you never know until you try. And so I was just kind of like ‘I’m going to take this risk.’
Sometimes you just have to close your eyes, take the risk, and all that comes with it and you never know what could happen. In my case it paid off and it’s been great. But I think we all have those moments where we’re at the crossroads between choosing right and choosing left and we have to go with our instinct and what feels best for us. You never know until you try.
WTA Insider: How do you know to trust your instincts?
Puig: Women’s intuition. That’s a real thing. I tend to trust my instincts a lot. Like when I have a bad feeling about something, I try and listen to that. And if I have a really good feeling about something, I try and listen to it. Sometimes it’s not always right but we do have women’s intuition and it’s a very powerful thing.
WTA Insider: As your profile and influence have increased, how have you stepped into a leadership role? What have been some of the things that have empowered you and what has been the struggle?
Puig: It’s been tough because I was given all of this responsibility out of the blue. Winning the Olympics was something that I definitely wasn’t prepared for, and all that came with it after was a bit of a shock. So while I was assuming all that responsibility, I didn’t really know how to juggle the pressures that came with it. So you just kind of make it up as you go.
It’s just being patient, adapting to everything that comes your way and with that, the younger generation starts to look at you and everything that you’re doing. You have to be really conscious that you’re sending a very strong example for those coming right behind you.
That’s why I’m always very conscious of what I do on the court, what I do off the court, what I portray off the court and the type of person that I want, in the future, for my kids to look up to and just say my mom was a great influencer.
I just love all that my platform has pretty much given me, and it just makes me feel strong because if I portray that I’m a strong, courageous, independent woman, then that might influence a 6-year-old girl you know who is probably getting bullied at school to say I’m strong myself, and I don’t need to listen to these people. If she could do it, I could do it. That’s the kind of thing that I want.
WTA Insider: Who are some of the women you looked up to?
Puig: When I was younger I would watch a lot of Jennifer Capriati, Serena Williams, Venus Williams, and I would just look at these women as just idols. They were so strong — physically strong, but also mentally strong with all that they had to deal with. I know now that winning something big comes with a lot of baggage afterwards. So dealing with all of that and still trying to manage your life is tough.
I’m a strong Latina woman. We definitely have a lot of fire in our hearts and we live life passionately about whatever we’re doing. We wear our heart on our sleeve and we’re not really afraid to show emotion, which is a good thing and a bad thing, but I think it’s just raw. And for people to see that you’re not holding back and you’re just being you is really important.
WTA Insider: Growing up around your family, your mother and grandmother, what are the lessons or examples they set for you that you took and apply today?
Puig: I feel like just the strength in carrying your family. I obviously had my dad, I had my mom, I grew up in a very healthy household, which is great. But just seeing the strength that they all had to deal with things, people being negative towards them, whether they were supporting my dream and they were in favor of my dreams and people telling them you’re crazy for putting her up to this. And they were just like, ‘No we’re not crazy. We have a vision. She has the drive. She’s pushing us.’
And I think one of the biggest things that we’ve been talking about in my family for a really long time is authenticity. Just be authentic with everybody. You don’t need to change because you have success. You don’t need to act like you’re above it all. You don’t need to act like you’re below it all. Just you know just be yourself. There’s no need to change. There’s no need to hide.
WTA Insider: What are the challenges for young Latina women to get into sports?
Puig: I mean I think a big challenge is obviously our upbringing because the Latinos, in general, our families are very affectionate. We show a lot of love. When you’re sad it’s always hugs and kisses all around. But in sport you need to be very tough. You need to have people that are going to tell you like it is, you’re going to have people who need to push you when you need to be pushed. And in those times it’s always kind of tough for the family.
But one thing that we do have going for us is that passion, is that heart, strong build, strong bodies, in general. So I think it’s just especially for tennis, it’s a lot of patience. It’ll come. You can’t really force it. I get this question a lot like why are there not more Latin women up there. It’s just patience, it’s going to come.