The night after she won an Olympic gold medal at the 2016 Games in Rio, Monica Puig found herself waking up every 30 or so minutes to make sure it wasn’t all a dream. She had wanted to stand atop the podium for as long as she could remember, so she had to constantly make sure it had actually happened.
Every time she woke up, she was relieved to find her medal placed on the nightstand next to her bed in the Olympic Village just as she had left it. She would touch it just to be sure, then go back to sleep.
“I’ve had dreams before where I won Wimbledon or the French Open, and then I wake up and it’s such a huge let down,” she said last week by phone. “I needed to be sure I had really done it.”
Her feelings were understandable. After defeating Angelique Kerber in a three-set championship match, Puig not only took home her first medal in her Olympic debut but earned the first gold for Puerto Rico in any sport. She knew the moment was huge not just for herself but for her home island, as well.
“The island overall loves sports, and I think my win really united a whole nation,” she said. “I was even told that for one evening, when I played, there were no reports of domestic violence or crime. No one was in the streets, they were watching anywhere with screens — at their homes with their family, at bars, anywhere. I have videos of how crazy people were going after I won. It was so beautiful to see how this really impacted the island, and it meant so much to me.”
Nearly four years later, Puig said the thrill of her victory has not diminished. She still gets just as excited thinking about it now as she did in the moment. She keeps the medal at her parents’ house, about five minutes from her Miami apartment, and she pulls it out frequently when she goes over. (She is based in Florida but still represents Puerto Rico and has extended family on the island.)
The 26-year-old is seeing a lot of it these days. Like most of her tennis and Olympic peers around the world, Puig is stuck at home during the coronavirus pandemic. The WTA Tour has been suspended until at least mid-July, following the cancellation of Wimbledon, and the Olympics have been postponed until 2021. Florida is under stay-at-home orders, so Puig can’t train at her normal facilities. Instead, she’s using the court at a family friend’s house and meeting with her coach and trainer on Zoom several times a week.
Puig had been excited about defending her gold medal this summer. But after undergoing elbow surgery in December following the conclusion of the 2019 season, she still hadn’t made her return to competition. She had originally planned on playing at the BNP Paribas Open in in March, but while training in Indian Wells ahead of its scheduled start, she and her team decided she wasn’t quite ready. She remained there for sponsorship obligations, but the tournament announced its cancellation shortly after. It was the first major sporting event to be called off, although many would soon follow in the chaotic days after.
“I had heard the rumors that it might not happen, but I really didn’t want to believe it could be true,” she said. “But then I was out to dinner, and I get a text message from [ATP player] Reilly Opelka and he’s like, ‘Did you just see that Indian Wells is canceled?’ I was shocked. Honestly, even to this day like a month later, I still am speechless about it because it’s just not something that ever happens.”
She stayed in California for another few days but was eager to get home. She understood the severity of the virus and wanted to do her part and self-isolate. She has been disappointed to see tournament after tournament get canceled or postponed but understands why. Having not played a match since October, she is longing to get back on the court. She is grateful to have more time to rehab her elbow without the temptation of competing. She even found herself relieved for the Olympics to be postponed despite four years of preparing for her return.
“The Olympics are the biggest sporting event in the world, and you want each and every athlete to be able to give 100% for something they’ve worked hard for their whole lives,” Puig said. “When you consider athletes not getting to be at their best [because of lack of training opportunities due to the coronavirus] and the safety of those who would be coming to watch, and the safety of the public at large, this is something that needed to happen. This is absolutely the right decision.
“This way hopefully every athlete will have the opportunity to be at their best next year and give it their all. I experienced it firsthand, when I had my medal on in the Olympic Village, people look at it as if it was like the last piece of bread during a shortage of food. They want this, they’ll die for this if they have to. Now everyone can move forward, knowing they don’t have to be in competition shape in a few months, and they can prepare themselves for the year ahead and have some peace of mind.”
Puig is spending her time working on her fitness, catching up on all the Netflix shows people always ask her if she has seen (she’s currently binge-watching “Money Heist”) and baking. She doesn’t actually eat much of what she makes (“I’m trying to stay in tennis shape!”), but she’s giving her dessert treats away to family and friends and finds the time in the kitchen therapeutic.
Her cousin has a bakery, and the two have been frequently collaborating. Their latest creations include cinnamon roll apple pies and Oreo-stuffed chocolate chip cookies. If reading about both of those is making your mouth water, rest assured she is considering posting some of her favorite recipes online.
For now, Puig is making the best of her time away from tennis. Currently ranked No. 90 — she reached a career high of No. 27 shortly after her triumph in Rio — and the winner of one other title on the WTA Tour, the Olympics remain her defining career moment. Her elbow injury has given her perspective and makes her appreciate the sport and what she has accomplished that much more because she knows nothing is ever guaranteed in the future.
“I will always be an Olympic gold medalist, and that will be something I will have with my name forever,” she said. “This is a title no one will ever be able to take away from me. No matter what happens in the future, I’ll know I did this, I earned this, and no one can ever change that.
“It’s incredibly special, and you know what? I would of course love to repeat, but it doesn’t matter if I never win the Olympics again. I will always have this. And even if I do win a second Olympics or a Grand Slam title, this will always be the most special because it was the first. It will forever be in my heart.”