(NEW YORK) — The Puerto Rico women’s basketball team is going to the 2020 Olympics and are making history in the process.
The team has qualified for the Olympics for the first time ever, according to the International Basketball Federation. Although they lost to France in an 89-51 final at the qualifying tournament on Feb. 9, the team secured their spot after Brazil was eliminated by Australia.
“It was an emotional moment … an exciting moment,” Tayra Meléndez, a forward on the national team, told ABC News about their triumphant win.
The women’s basketball team has now become the fifth team in Puerto Rico’s history to participate in the Olympic games, following men’s basketball, baseball, women’s volleyball and women’s softball.
Inspiring an Island
The team’s victory is especially significant as the island continues to reel from recent deadly earthquakes, including a magnitude 6.4 earthquake that rattled the island on Jan. 7, leaving one person dead, destroying several homes and leaving thousands without power. Residents on the island are also still recovering from the aftermath of Hurricane Maria’s devastation in September 2017.
“Hurricane Maria was big for us … it was hard. It was a time where everybody suffered on the island. It was really, really tough,” Gerardo “Jerry” Batista, the head coach of the team, told ABC News.
“[We were] trying to bring some good news to the people of Puerto Rico. That was great for us … that was the goal, that was the motivation,” Batista said.
Meléndez, 26, was born in Puerto Rico and later moved to Massachusetts with her parents. During her childhood, she recalls growing up on the island with her grandmother, who later passed away. Meléndez, who changed her jersey number in memory of her grandmother, said that she’s grateful for the chance to carry on her family’s legacy.
“She loved Puerto Rico more than anything in this world … when I put that jersey on, it’s a reminder of everything beautiful that is that island,” Meléndez said.
She said that despite all the obstacles that her fellow teammates have faced both “emotionally and physically,” every challenge has only brought them closer together as a team.
“We are a family within each other,” Meléndez said.
Supporting Women in Sports
Coach Batista believes that the island’s commitment and investment into the team have played a major role in the team’s success. He said that Yum Ramos, president of the Puerto Rican Basketball Federation, is among those supporters.
Ramos, who was elected to the role in 2016 after serving as tournament director for the women’s professional league, said his administration has consistently ensured that the Puerto Rico women’s basketball team was made a priority.
Not only did the team receive additional financial support, including new uniforms and increased salaries, but their financial support has now matched their male counterparts.
For Ramos, his personal dedication to the team derives from his upbringing with his mom teaching him the importance of “treating women equally.”
“We believe in them … and gave them everything they needed to be successful,” Ramos told ABC News.
Meléndez, who was named director of Basketball Operations at Bryant University in Rhode Island last year, said she’s especially proud of how far the team has come considering the sacrifices that many of the players have made to play — including several of them also balancing other side gigs.
“My advice to any young girl would be to love the process … love every minute of it. The good days and the bad days … [and] with time, you’ll see the results,” she said.
The 2020 Olympics kick off on July 24 in Tokyo.
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