Tennis has always been a way of life for sophomore Alejandra Ramirez and junior Gabby Giraldo, but the cultural backdrop of their athletic careers hasn’t always translated to the court.
Ramirez, a second-generation Mexican American, and Giraldo, a native Colombian, have navigated a predominantly white playing field in the United States despite carrying cultural roots that have molded their athletic careers. As the only two Hispanic athletes on GW’s seven-player tennis roster, Ramirez and Giraldo have risen to integral roles on the team, securing two of GW’s three places in the regional Bedford Cup Finals earlier this month, where Ramirez took second place in singles and Giraldo earned first place in doubles.
“I’ve sacrificed so much for tennis,” Ramirez said. “I love the sport, I love the people that I’ve met, the opportunities that I’ve had where I’ve traveled to, it’s all because of tennis. ”
Now under the leadership of Head Coach George Rodriguez, who filled the position at GW in August and shares a Hispanic background, the two said they have found a home with the tennis program and “dad feel” in Rodriguez. During Hispanic Heritage Month, The GW Hatchet is profiling Hispanic athletes at GW to showcase their talent and spotlight the faces behind the stat lines.
“It was definitely hard, I definitely lost some Spanish,” Ramirez said. “It’s harder for me to talk about it more, but now this year with Gabi on the team, and now with our new head coach, it’s much better and it’s easier for me.”
Ramirez and Giraldo attended the same boarding school – Boca Prep International School in Boca Raton, Florida, which specializes in athletic training, including a strong tennis program – during their high school years. Ramirez arrived at GW for her freshman year, but Giraldo took a detour to the University of Houston for two years, where she attained a 19-12 singles record and earned singles crowns at the Texas Regional and the international Universal Tennis Rating Tournament.
Ramirez earned a 1-5 record for GW last season in the singles category but ranked among the top 1,200 worldwide tennis players by the International Tennis Federation. She said she struggled to keep in touch with her culture during her freshman year with a predominately non-Hispanic roster but found a larger Hispanic community across campus through student organizations, like the Organization of Latin American Students, to make her feel at home.
She said she misses the family-oriented nature of Hispanic culture, like when her grandparents would visit Texas from their hometown in Reynossa, Mexico and she would eat traditional dishes like pozole – a Mexican soup that has seasoned meat and garnished with lettuce, onions and garlic.
Ramirez said her father, a former Division III tennis player, inspired her to pursue her own tennis career, and she’s living out his dream of playing at the Division I level. She said she started playing tennis at the age of five, and she has not been able to drop the racket since.
“He was my coach, which definitely has its ups and downs,” Ramirez said. “But I think my relationship with my dad, it’s really special because tennis is such a huge part of my life. And he’s not only my dad, but he was also my coach.”
When Giraldo moved from Colombia to Florida as a 16-year-old to continue her academic and tennis careers at boarding school, she struggled to find her place so far away from home and the comfort of her family. Now at GW, Giraldo said the University has offered a support system through its Latino community, and she returns home during breaks in the school year to see her family and friends in Colombia, which she holds “really close to her heart.”
“I think also the Latinos that are here, we take care of each other at times because, again, we’re not that many,” Giraldo said. “But it’s a very good group, and it’s something I carry with myself, like my values and all that. So it’s definitely really good to be able to represent where I come from even though I’m so far from home.”
Giraldo has represented the national Colombian team in the Regional and World Championships in the 2022 season. Rodriguez said Giraldo has modeled the fight and commitment that he looks to set as the recruitment standard for the team in the coming seasons.
“I think having Gabby gives us a good foundation and a stronger foundation as a team, and she gives me a measurement of what I need to bring in talent that would match that or make it better,” Rodriguez said. “And when they say that is when you have someone like her that sets that bar high, my goal now – and I tell my team this – is to bring in people that are as high or even better to keep pushing or to keep making her better at the same time.”
Both players applauded Rodriguez’s leadership of the tennis team so far, advancing their athletic potential and supporting them through a sense of cultural understanding. Giraldo said he has made her transition to GW as smooth as possible, and Ramirez said he has provided mental support beyond the physical demands of the game.
“I love having that international presence because it does bring a different flare, a different dynamic to the team, a different way of thinking,” Rodriguez said. “And for me it’s getting to know each of my players on a more personal level and understanding their background as well, and they’re all different.”
With a special bond developed with his players, Rodriguez looks to chase the A-10 crown this season after the team showed encouraging results at Bedford Cup Finals in their first competition of a seemingly promising season.