Responding to life’s backhand stroke

COVID complications brought about a premature end to Paolo Cucalon’s Temple tennis career.

Story by Esteban Suarez

Going halfway through his senior season, with the hopes of at least clinching the American Athletic Conference semifinals for consecutive years for the first time in Temple history, Paolo Cucalon saw his tennis college career come to an abrupt end. 

Cucalon was not the only senior athlete whose final college season got cut without further notice mid-March more than a year ago due to a global pandemic whose consequences were starting to leave a trace and become perceptible. 

However, different from other student-athletes in the same situation, the Colombian had international, professional, and athletic factors beyond his reach that made his future more uncertain than others.

Like most students on campus, the 23-year-old decided to go back home and finish his last semester online and graduate remotely. But with the start of classes less than a month away, Cucalon chose to follow his competitive instincts and take his extra year of eligibility and come back to Temple. On and off the court, pursuing a master’s degree while also having the chance to play again and come back from a shortened season seemed like the best choice for him. 

But the farewell to the courts was not what the international player expected. The voice inside his head wouldn’t leave him alone until he came back and gave it the correct finale after so many years of competing.

“When the coach offered me the opportunity to come back and retire from the courts on a high note, I didn’t hesitate,” Cucalon said. “I came back full of expectations and more desire to compete than ever before; it was a way to vindicate myself.” 

Despite the high hopes and the eagerness to best conclude his college career, the way back to North Philly wasn’t quite what Cucalon was expecting when he first chose to come back. After a tough fall semester of intense training and remote learning, without any official games, uncertainty also made its way into the 2021 season. 

Cucalon went home for winter break to charge energy with his family and get ready for his last season as an Owl, but the way back was full of surprises for him. 

After just a couple of weeks in Philly, his roommate tested positive for Covid-19, and both had to isolate themselves for two weeks. Once they concluded with the quarantine established by Temple’s COVID  protocols, Cucalon got tested again.

Same as his roommate, he also tested positive. 

After a long month of quarantining, just five days after stepping back on the court for the first time since his arrival, four positive cases forced  the tennis team to shut down. 

“Paolo had to quarantine back to back for a period of time,” said international teammate Oyku Bouz. “I think coming out of that, he didn’t feel the same as he did before.” 

And that wasn’t all. 

Philadelphia’s winter came late and brought several inches of snow in March. City streets were white and neat. It was a delight for the eyes of outsiders who romanticize snowflakes and cold days. 

Not for Cucalon, whose apartment wasn’t fully waterproof and prepared for the storm. The snow melted, and his room leaked. He  moved all the things in his room to the living room, where he quarantined for the second time until the team had a green light to come back. 

“I felt more like a trapped student and not an athlete,” Cucalon said. “The uncertainty surrounding the season and games getting canceled didn’t help my mental health at all.”

Without a private space to quietly rest, in a shared room, trapped within four walls, with no tennis to play or another place to pour all his frustrations, the most challenging match Cucalon faced was the one against his mind.

Going to class online and staying away from the courts was something Paolo wasn’t looking for. His parents, key in Cucalon’s life, were the ones who gave him the idea to come back home for a couple of weeks to calm his stormy thoughts and stabilize. 

“I was having a hard time concentrating. I had returned to the United States to enjoy my experience, and I was suffering locked in the apartment,” said Paolo. “Coming home, being with my family, and being away from Temple has helped me to find my balance again.”

Quitter is not one of the words teammates use to describe Cucalon. The hard worker didn’t want to let down anyone. Leaving the team was one hard pill to swallow. 

“He wanted to play and show how much he can contribute to the team,” said academic advisor Nicholas Plak. 

After a successful 2019 season, clinching the semifinals for the first time in program history and beating Tulane one of the most prestigious teams in the conference on the way there, Cucalon wanted to help and be part of that. 

But with no games in sight, it was hard to remain focused and forget everything going on around.

“The uncertainty of playing got him a little homesick. Leaving wasn’t an easy decision for him. He was torn, but when he put the pros and cons together, the decision to go back was the better one for the personal issues he was facing,” said Plak.

Temple started its 2020-21 campaign at home March 11 with a dominant 7-0 win over Fairleigh Dickinson University. 

Cucalon watched the season opener from home, dealing with the inner voice that urged him to leave on a higher note. The hope of playing one more set and serving his last ace before retiring forever from the court are still alive in Cucalon’s mind. 

However, as the uncertainty of recent times has shown, there is no space in the new normality for expectations or high hopes.

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