Belen Barcenillaâ€™s initial experience of college in the United States began with her arrival in Spokane, Washington, during a frigid January afternoon.
The cold winter weather was a stark contrast from her hometown of Leon, Spain. It wasnâ€™t the first time she had left Spain for the United States, but it was the first time she began to regret her decision to study internationally.
Her teammates picked her up from the airport in Spokane and drove her to Moscow for her first experience at the university.
â€œIt was so cold,â€ she said. â€œEverything I could see was snow. All I could see forever was snow and I was like, â€˜Where am I going? What have I done?â€™â€
Barcenilla said she did not enjoy her first week on campus.
â€œEvery freshman who comes from another country has some days where itâ€™s really tough,â€ she said. â€œFor me it was my first weeks. I got here and I missed my home so much. I was so homesick.â€
Barcenilla lived in the Wallace Residence Hall without a roommate, and said she felt isolated.
â€œI didnâ€™t have a roommate,â€ she said. â€œI didnâ€™t have a computer. I didnâ€™t have a phone. I remember myself walking around Wallace at 2 a.m., it was horrible.â€
Barcenilla said the language barrier proved another difficult obstacle to overcome.
â€œI remember the professor talking and I couldnâ€™t understand a word,â€ she said. â€œIt was like Chinese for me. I didnâ€™t know what BBLearn was, I was so lost.â€
The final push
Barcenilla said she did not initially plan to pursue tennis after high school, let alone travel to the United States for a college education.
The United States is one of only a handful of countries that offer collegiate athletic and academic programs. Students like Barcenilla, who want to play tennis and earn a degree, have to choose to become a professional athlete or pursue a degree if they wish to stay in their home country.
â€œI remember when I was 15, my parents said there was another girl in my state that decided to come to America,â€ she said. â€œMy parents were like, â€˜Oh wow, thatâ€™s a really good idea.â€™â€
She said her parents began searching for information on studying abroad.
â€œMy last year of high school they started talking to me about it,â€ Barcenilla said. â€œAt first I didnâ€™t want to come.â€
Her parents told her that she should study in the country for one year, in order to play tennis and learn English.
â€œThere was another Spanish girl (at UI) and she started telling me how she was so happy here,â€ Barcenilla said. â€œAt that age I donâ€™t think youâ€™re mature enough to make a decision like this by yourself. You donâ€™t really know what it means to go to another country and learn the language. (My parents) gave me the last push to decide to come.â€
Barcenilla said she cannot remember when she first began to play the sport, but said her parents were always her biggest supporters.
â€œEvery time I call my parents crying like, â€˜I cannot do this anymore,â€™â€ she said. â€œMy parents say, â€˜In the last years you have called a few times saying this is the best years of your life and itâ€™s been because of tennis.â€™ I just think about last year â€” winning conference. I called my mom and said, â€˜This is the best moment of my life.â€™â€
Wake up call
Barcenilla said her Spanish coaches were never strict with her when she played the sport.
â€œI never took the practice too seriously,â€ she said. â€œI never thought it would have these consequences.â€
Barcenilla said the tennis atmosphere back home was much more relaxed than collegiate athletics in the United States.
â€œItâ€™s not like home where you can go or not go to practice,â€ she said. â€œHere itâ€™s so much discipline. I didnâ€™t have discipline when I came here.â€
Barcenilla said she initially struggled to meet the demands of student athletes on campus.
â€œYouâ€™re not the boss of yourself anymore,â€ Barcenilla said. â€œYou have someone who tells you what to do. At first it was really tough. I was used to doing whatever I wanted to do.â€
Idaho womenâ€™s tennis coach Mariana Cobra said she and Barcenilla often clashed on certain issues.
â€œPlayers have personalities,â€ Cobra said. â€œBelen is trying to push and thatâ€™s great when itâ€™s on the tennis court. But when itâ€™s about discipline and rules, she learned that was not OK.â€
Cobra believes she feels fortunate to have helped Barcenilla turn her attitude around.
â€œShe actually got kicked off the team,â€ Cobra said. â€œI think it took her to kicked off the team and realize that she was about to lose everything she had to really put it together.â€
Barcenilla said she is a completely different individual now than when she first arrived on campus.
â€œThose months out of the team changed me,â€ Barcenilla said. â€œI never thought how my behavior could have consequences on my life. I think those months were really tough but they made a really big influence on me.â€
The relationship between the player and coach improved significantly after Barcenillaâ€™s time away from the sport.
â€œLast year she was a key piece to our success,â€ Cobra said. â€œShe does really well in doubles. Iâ€™m very proud of her, I think sheâ€™s come a long way.â€
During the 2015 season, Barcenilla earned a Big Sky Conference Honorable Mention. In 2014, she was named given Second Team All-WAC Doubles honors.
Barcenilla also played a season with a broken arm, and would break the program record for most singles victories with a 30-8 record.
â€œSheâ€™s a grinder, sheâ€™s feisty, loves challengesâ€ Cobra said. â€œItâ€™s amazing how much she has to have that challenge to get better. If a referee tells her something sheâ€™s going to get really mad and then sheâ€™s going to try to prove them wrong. Even her bad matches, she doesnâ€™t give up.â€
Cobra said she believes Barcenilla integrated smarter play during her time at Idaho.
â€œShe wanted to be Roger Federer,â€ Cobra said. â€œShe wanted to hit the ball and she wanted to win pretty. I think sheâ€™s finally understanding that you donâ€™t have to be playing your best to succeed and you donâ€™t have to play like Federer, hitting every ball. She can hit the high ball, she can slice, she has everything and sheâ€™s willing to use it all now.â€
While this is the last year of her eligibility, Barcenilla said she will remain at Idaho an additional year to complete an engineering degree.
â€œI will keep in touch with tennis after this year but Iâ€™m not going to go pro,â€ Barcenilla said. â€œHonestly, I donâ€™t think I can make it. Right now I think I want to stay in America and coach for a few years at least.â€
Cobra said she told Barcenilla last year that coaching might provide the athlete with a suitable career path.
â€œI was like, â€˜Coach, thereâ€™s no chance. Iâ€™ve never thought about it, I donâ€™t want to,â€™â€ Barcenilla said. â€œShe kept talking to me about it. She got into my head. And now thatâ€™s what I want to do. I want to be able to share what I know with other people the same way my coach did.â€
Barcenilla said Cobra inspired her in a number of different ways.
â€œShe made a big impact on my life â€” more than a coach,â€ she said. â€œIt inspired me to (think), â€˜Oh maybe I want to have this impact on other peopleâ€™s lives.â€™â€
Tess Fox can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @tesstakesphotos