MARQUETTE, Mich.— Each semester of the 2018-19 academic year, Northern Michigan University Athletics will highlight nine different student-athletes or stories for their significance on and off the playing surface. The features are due to be released approximately every two weeks in accordance with the corresponding athletic seasons. Each feature will touch on student-athletes and their interesting and unique journeys at Northern Michigan University.
In the second edition of the series, NMU Athletics highlights volleyball student-athlete Gabriela Martinez.
In 2017-18, a total of 59 student-athletes from foreign counties competed for NMU Athletics. Some of these student-athletes came from further away than others, but all 59 of them left their own home and country in pursuit of a common goal: earn a college degree and compete in the sport that they love.
Current Wildcat Volleyball junior Gabriela Martinez is no exception. Despite being a U.S. citizen, Martinez faces many of the same dilemmas as international students at NMU. Her hometown of Vega Baja, Puerto Rico is, in her words, about 35 minutes from San Juan which is the capital of the island country and United State territory.
On September 20, 2017, the category five Hurricane Maria hit land on the island resulting in one of the worst natural disasters in the history of Atlantic hurricanes. With winds reaching 175 miles per hour in the storm, Puerto Rico requested more than $90 billion in relief aid after the storm had passed and damage could be assessed.
"I do not have words to describe how I felt in those moments," Martinez said of watching the disaster unfold from afar. "Seeing all of these photos and video, I was broken inside."
Martinez came a great distance to balance life as a student-athlete. She moved thousands of miles from home to a vastly different climate to compete for the Wildcats and continue her education. Beginning September 20, 2017, Martinez' pursuit of a college education and her volleyball career became far less important.
Hurricane Maria wiped out power on most of the island for weeks at a time. To this day, parts of Puerto Rico are still without power. Martinez was unable to communicate with her family after the hurricane passed over the island. For days, she was unsure if her family was safe. Days turned to weeks of wondering if her family was even alive.
"We had just competed against Ferris State and we hadn't lost in conference yet; that was our first loss," Head Coach Mike Lozier said of the situation. "It wasn't a great match. It was kind of frustrating and we were getting ready to get on the road back to Marquette."
That's when Martinez got the call after two weeks of no communication with her family.
She received a call from her uncle while still in the locker room after the Ferris St. match. Tears of relief began to flow after hearing that her friends and family were safe. Her family traveled around to find power and attempt to contact with Martinez in the upper peninsula.
"You take this moment where the entire team was pretty upset and down about what just happened," Lozier added. "Immediately, everyone's mood changed."
After making that contact with her family, Martinez was able to slowly transition her focus back to daily life as a student-athlete at NMU. The devastation that her family faced soon became a reality as she and teammate Hailey Wikstrom traveled to the island together during the winter after the storm. The two were able to view the rebuilding efforts first-hand, as well as the lasting impact Hurricane Maria still has on the island.
"I cannot imagine what it must have been like being there while it was happening," said Wiskstrom. "They are very strong people."