Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Castillo Learns Tennis, Life Lessons

By Rachel Long

Spaniard Paula Del Cueto Castillo has found a new level of love for tennis at Nebraska.

Finding that love in Lincoln as a member of the Husker women’s team has not been without its ups and downs or twists and turns. Her unlikely journey forced her to expand her world view, challenge a language barrier, overcome a wrist injury and find a comfort zone among strangers more than 4,600 miles away from her hometown, family and friends.

“Coming here was like a shot of, ‘this could be fun again,’” Castillo said. “People could enjoy tennis again. I really learned a lot of that here.”

Growing up in Dos Hermanas, a city in the Seville province of Spain, Castillo began playing tennis at age 3. At 9, she was playing at a local club with other kids for fun. That same year, she won her first regional championship.

“I feel like when I won, I didn’t know I was actually important,” Castillo said. “Then I won that, and I was like, ‘Wait. I can actually do something with this.’”

Castillo started practicing every day, and when she reached high school, she was faced with a decision: should she pursue an opportunity to play tennis full time, or should she choose to live the more normal life of a Spanish high school student.

She decided to play.

The coach at her tennis club told her she needed to find a new place to play, where more challenges and greater competition would push her to higher levels in her game.

“My coach told me, ‘Hey, you need to go to another place because we cannot give you any more,’” Castillo said. “I was like, ‘Wait, I don’t need any more!’ And he was like, ‘Yes, you need something else.’ I had to move to another academy, so I started moving myself into the tennis world. I had to practice with older people, and I needed someone actually to practice with me 100 percent. It was not just a hobby.”

Castillo started playing for the academy of Seville, and was invited to play for a Barcelona academy the next year. After Barcelona, she was back at Seville, where Castillo was playing full time in junior pro tournaments and practicing tennis for six hours every day.

Her focus on tennis allowed her to excel at the highest levels in Spain. She was the No. 1 junior in Andalucia in 2014 and 2015, and ranked as high as the No. 35 junior player in all of Spain. She was also ranked as the No. 54 doubles player across all levels in Spain.

Castillo loved the sport, but after four years of going 100 percent for more than 40 hours per week, Castillo began to feel a sense of burn out.

She wanted to find more time to enjoy life and tennis, rather than feeling physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted at the end of each day.

In the summer after her third year competing on the junior professional circuit in Spain, Nebraska assistant coach German Dalmagro came to Spain on a recruiting trip for the Huskers.

They met at a tournament during what Castillo calls her “top time in tennis life,” and the two began talking, skyping and managing what possibilities she had at Nebraska. Before even visiting the school, Castillo accepted Nebraska’s scholarship offer. She didn’t even look at any other schools, despite the many calls and messages she was receiving regarding the continuation of her playing career as a collegian in the United States.

Nebraska was offering Castillo a fresh start to her tennis career, and she jumped at the opportunity.

But her transition to Nebraska held many challenges off the court that many students might not immediately realize. While over 90 percent of students at the University come from the United States, including over 70 percent from the state of Nebraska, Castillo was a Spaniard who admitted that she may have known roughly 200 words of English when she arrived in Lincoln. To put that total in perspective, most American 8 year olds know about 10,000 words and an average adult knows between 20,000 and 35,000.

“The language for me was the worst thing,” Castillo said. “In the beginning, I couldn’t understand almost anything, so I was kind of lost. I didn’t want to hang out with people, because I was like, I am not going to understand them. It’s really different. The language is the worst part, but also everything is different. Like, how people treat each other, everything.”

After making the more than 4,600-mile journey from Seville, Castillo realized she missed simple things in her everyday life back home. She felt unsettled and uncomfortable during her first three months in the United States. She spent most of her time talking with her friends back in Spain about how she was struggling. But her perseverance and determination to succeed in a game she loves helped her reach a turning point in her mindset about her new home in Nebraska.

“That point was like, OK, I can’t do this anymore,” Castillo said. “I need to step out and try things, new things, like try to talk with people, meet other people outside my team, and then I started getting better. My language, everything, started getting better.”

Dalmagro said Castillo gained confidence through extra effort.

“She worked really hard doing extra tutoring, asking questions and making sure she did everything she could to learn it as fast and as much as she could,” Dalmagro said. “All the credit to her for working really hard, and for being brave in some difficult situations. Now Paula talks all the time, she’s herself at all times, she has a great sense of humor and her grades are very good. She is a wonderful person. We are very fortunate to have her in our team.”

Castillo’s team and coaches, including Dalmagro, were the next major factor in adapting to American life. She received help that spanned from treating injuries to improving her English studies. Although she missed a traditional greeting with a kiss, she began to understand and enjoy a different kind of outgoing and caring nature among members of the Husker community.

“They care about each other, they support each other, like ‘Hey, if you need something just let me know,’ or something like that,” Castillo said. “It’s like that feeling, like a family. If someone needs something, you’re going to be there. And I know that if I don’t know someone, if I say, ‘Hey, could you help me with this?’, they’re going to be completely fine with it.”

Castillo began to recognize that same kind of caring on the court, something she did not experience as a junior pro in Spain. Before joining the Husker tennis team, Castillo said she felt like she was a player alone out on the court. Now, she feels the strength of her teammates and coaches alongside her, even when she is competing in singles.

Castillo said she remembers vividly the first match she won as a Husker, primarily because of the atmosphere her teammates created for her. Nebraska’s game-day environment at the new Sid and Hazel Dillon Tennis Center is full of cheering and vocal support, clapping and high fives, and Castillo recognizes it as one of her favorite parts of playing tennis at Nebraska. She also realizes that emotional support is helping her to push her game to higher levels.

Now as she enters the heart of her junior season on the court at Nebraska, she is eager to improve on her outstanding 2016-17 season for the Huskers. As a sophomore, Castillo amassed 24 wins in both singles and doubles play for the Huskers, after a 3-2 season her freshman year when she was limited by a wrist injury. She played out of the No. 3 position for nine of her 12 singles victories, and out of the No. 1 spot with Mary Hanna for 10 of her 12 doubles victories. Nebraska Coach Scott Jacobson said Castillo strengthens the team in a variety of ways.

“Paula is one of the most passionate players to have ever competed for our program,” Jacobson said. “She brings tremendous energy to our team, especially on match days, and is equally gifted on a doubles court as she is while competing in singles. She is a tremendous gift to our program and a phenomenal leader.”

While Castillo is aiming to raise the level of her game enough during her time at Nebraska in order to compete professionally after college, she also is investing her time academically in the study of psychology, aiming to help others through a law enforcement agency or through a career as a tennis coach.

Despite the language barriers she had to overcome as a freshman, Castillo has earned spots on the Nebraska Scholar-Athlete Honor Roll every semester she’s studied at Nebraska. After the 2017 season, she was named Academic All-Big Ten, named a Big Ten Distinguished Scholar, and also received the Big Ten Sportsmanship Award and the Arthur Ashe Jr. Sports Scholar Award. Castillo also found time to help others off the court and outside the classroom by earning a spot on the Tom Osborne Citizenship Team the last two years.

“That will be my goal, working with athletes, just helping them to go through everything that I went, because I actually went to a lot of psychologists, and I feel like tennis is 99 percent mental,” Castillo said. “So I really think that it’s a really important role in tennis and of course in other sports. I want to be that person that actually helps another kid to go through all those feelings that you can feel on the tennis court.”

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