Beyond Box Scores: Figueroa looks back on Pan Am Games
By Rob Daniels
For a photo gallery of Aisha Figueroa at the Pan Am Games, click here.
This past February, Aisha Figueroa participated in UNCG’s no-hit victory over Florida State, an event that presumably compelled some Spartans to think “It’s doesn’t get better than this.” But for Figueroa, that was only the beginning of an improbable and swift journey by the standards of conventional international sport.
History is replete with stories of childhoods overtaken by quests for spots on the global stage. Pushy parents and overbearing coaches working in tag team for years in advance and all that. Not here.
Had her last name been Smith, Figueroa probably wouldn’t have been spending some of her October in Mexico at the Pan Am Games representing her father’s native Puerto Rico.
“Yeah, ‘luck’ would be a good word for it,” she admitted. “It was my goal to play for a national team. Obviously, I wanted to play for the USA, but any team will work.”
If happenstance contributed to her place on the roster, her .409 batting average in the tournament surely justified it.
Figueroa had no idea her goal was coming to fruition. She was playing as a freshman for UNCG and opposing the Seminoles, one of whose players had ties to the Puerto Rican national team. Pretty good ties, in fact. Her dad is an assistant coach on that team. He noticed her play at third base, scanned the Spartan lineup and noticed the last name. Might Figueroa qualify for the Puerto Rico team? The rules don’t require the player to have been born in the country; a parent will suffice.
And lo and behold, it worked out. Jose Figueroa was born in Puerto Rico and enlisted in the American military on his 18th birthday. He wound up in New Jersey. His daughter, born in Lakewood, N.J., in 1991, is a U.S. citizen who speaks not a word of Spanish. But as she soon discovered, this wasn’t a problem. The roster of her adopted national team was almost entirely American by birth and residence.
“In August, my parents and I drove to Florida,” Aisha Figueroa said. “A bunch of drills in speed, agility and hitting. The tryouts lasted three days and seven hours a day. Two weeks after that, you’d get an email saying if you made the team.”
The logistical problem would be missed class time in October. Neither the university nor the Puerto Rican federation would sign off on it unless Figueroa’s professors did so first. When they were supportive of the idea and developed a plan to help mitigate the missed class time, the third baseman with one year of college experience to her name headed for the Pan Am Games.
An amazing experience greeted her in Mexico, where the locals appreciated the presence of an international competition and deluged people they didn’t really know for autographs.
“On the first day, there were the opening ceremonies, and that was the most amazing thing I have ever been a part of,” Figueroa said. “The whole arena was packed. Tickets were sold out. I took so many pictures. And little kids want to take pictures with you. Unreal.”
And then to the surreal: playing against the United States. Figueroa isn’t simply an American; she admits to “idolizing” some players she faced in the competition.
“I think it was more nerve-wracking than strange,” she said. “I was excited to play against them but at the same time, very nervous.
“The level was incredible. A lot faster than anything I’ve ever played before. After we started playing more games, I got less nervous and was able to remind myself that it’s just softball. I’ve been playing it all my life.”
The Puerto Rico team went 2-5 in the event, but Figueroa was one of the top five hitters in the entire tournament, and she did it while playing a new position, second base. She also led her team with five stolen bases.
“I really concentrated on putting the ball on the ground,” she said. “I didn’t want to overthink it.”
Figueroa said she didn’t look at her individual statistics until returning to UNCG, at which time her parents reminded her that she had, in fact, excelled.
The result bodes well for the Spartans, who notice a difference in a player who had already achieved a fair amount as the 2010 team’s most valuable defender.
“I feel more confidence,” Figueroa said, “and I think it’s because of the experience I had. So, I’m excited to start this season.”
Having earned a foothold on an international roster, she’s also thinking about the summer of 2012, when the World Championships will be held in Montreal.
And no matter how she got there, she indicated she belonged.
- UNCG -