By: Austin Siegel
Maria Linares is a junior on the K-State Tennis team and a native of Maracay, Venezuela.
We spoke with Maria during Hispanic Heritage Month about playing on K-State’s most international team, discovering tennis in Venezuela and making the move from Maracay to Manhattan.
The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What has you the most excited about K-State Tennis this season?
We’ve started practicing again with the team. We were just practicing alone, and it can be a little hard because we don’t feel as motivated as when we’re training with our coaches. They push us. For example, I need someone who’s telling me what to do to feel more motivated. We’re starting tournaments next week and need those matches to see what we can improve. I’m really excited for next weekend in Lawrence.
With such an international roster on K-State Tennis, how difficult was it to keep in touch with your teammates over the summer?
Most of the girls left in March or April. I stayed here with my roommate, so at least we had each other. We FaceTimed each other and sent text messages to see how we were doing. It can be hard with the distance, but it was good to talk just to see if they needed anything and let them know we’re always here. If you want to talk to someone or just do something else whether it’s talking about your issues or just laugh together, we’re always here.
What was it like being home with everything that’s going on with COVID-19?
Well I tried to go home, but my parents aren’t living in Venezuela anymore. They’re living in Panama right now. They closed the airport so I couldn’t go there. And then my parents didn’t want me to go back to Venezuela because the situation is a little bit worse there. So, it was better to stay here just to protect my family and me. What I heard from my teammates who went home is they always had to wear their mask, even on the streets. You can take off your mask if you’re social distancing, but some of them could get tickets for not wearing a mask.
What brought your parents to Panama?
The economy and insecurity back home. My Mom got an offer from her company to work in Panama where the situation is better. She asked for my permission, but it was a better opportunity. After my Mom went there alone, my Dad stayed with my brother in Venezuela. Then both of them went to Panama and now my brother is working in London. We’re everywhere.
For K-State fans who haven’t been to Venezuela, how would you describe growing up in Maracay?
My grandparents are from Portugal, so I grew up with a lot of Portuguese traditions. My Dad’s side has Venezuelan and Italian traditions because some of my uncles are from Italy. So, growing up, it was a mix of Venezuelan, Portuguese and Italian traditions. It was nice because they’re such different cultures, I learned what each of them of do during Christmas, for example. And then comparing it to here in Kansas, like we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving or Halloween. I didn’t realize it was such a big deal before I came here. But growing up, I also learned the values that are important to each culture, like respecting each other.
How were you first introduced to the sport of tennis?
I was six years old and I was in swimming lessons. My Mom was always looking for me after my swimming lessons and I would go to the tennis courts. She was like, “Well, I figured you wanted to play.” And I was like, “Why not?” She got me into tennis and I’m still playing right now.
At what point did K-State come into the picture for you as a possibility?
When I was 16 or 17, I was in my last year of school and didn’t know what I wanted to do, whether it was try professional tennis or keep studying back home. My coach played D1 tennis here in the U.S. and he told me that you can play tennis at a good school and get a degree. Especially for my parents, school is first and tennis is second. There were other universities too, but I chose this one because they were going to help me with my English. It wasn’t that good before and they have a program here to help international students improve their English. I know sometimes when I speak, I still sound crazy, but I can understand everyone. At the same time, K-State is in the Big 12 Conference and it’s in the Power Five. The tennis level here is really good and I’m playing ranked people and ranked schools.
Besides your family, what do you miss the most about Maracay and where you grew up in Venezuela?
Well first is my family, but second has got to be the food. Here, we don’t eat the same stuff. For most international student-athletes, it’s always family stuff and then the food. It’s what you grew up with and you ate it every day. I miss that, and then of course my friends. I spent high school with them and even now that I’m in a different country, I still keep in touch with them.
Coming into a team at K-State where so many of the student-athletes are from other countries, what was that first year like for you?
I was a little nervous because I didn’t know much English and how I was going to speak in front of the coaches. I was nervous just talking to other people. I knew that almost everyone was going through the same thing as an international student-athlete, moving away from their families and learning a different culture and a new language. I think I spent two or three months without really talking to my teammates. I was just saying like, “OK” or, “Oh, yeah.”
With time, I realized that when I talked to them, they would tell me if I was doing well or if I should say this word instead of that one. They told me I didn’t have to be ashamed when I was talking to them. They knew what I was going through because they went through the same thing. They were here to help me.
When you talk to your friends back home who haven’t been here, how do you explain what K-State and Manhattan are like?
The good thing is that the town I come from is also small like this, so we have everything kind of close. That’s good for me, because I don’t want to have to drive like 40 minutes to go to the supermarket. Here the people are really kind and always trying to help each other. Back home, they don’t support their athletes in the same way as K-State and other universities. If you have a problem, they’re going to try and help you. Back home, if you want to play tennis and study at the same time, there isn’t a university where you can do both. You study or you play tennis.
Is there anything you’ve learned about being Venezuelan or your cultural heritage after moving to Kansas and living so far away from home?
I always get some messages from Venezuelan tennis players asking for help or advice about coming to the U.S. to play. They don’t know that many people here. They’re always asking, “What do you think about this and that.” I’m always like, “Well here are the universities that might be the best fit for you.” You just have to think about what you’re looking for. I’m always going to be proud of where I’m from and what my family taught me. Because of them, I’m going to try and make sure the next generation feels welcome no matter where they are from.