WITH THE LOVE of her life by her side, Olympic tennis gold medalist Monica Puig boards a plane in New York on Nov. 7, 2022. She’s bound for her home, a 1,600-mile flight to Puerto Rico. A day earlier, Puig had bounded through the streets of New York City’s five boroughs, a 26.2-mile excursion to complete her first marathon, her fiancé by her side. Now, awaiting her in her motherland is a new journey, a new life. Her wedding to Nathan Rakitt is days away.
A mountain of last-minute wedding details awaits her back home, and Puig feels adrenaline coursing through her body. Her head is spinning. She’s thinking about her future. Her plans. Her hopes. Her dreams. One thought bounces around her brain, over and over again.
I am going to run the six major marathons.
On Monday, she’ll take that vow to the Boston Marathon.
WEARING A RED DRESS with white trim and blue accents, Puig crumples to her knees and puts her head on the court at the Olympic Tennis Centre at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Her body shakes with sobs. Moments earlier, she had fought off her sixth break point of the game against world No. 2 Angelique Kerber with a deft backhand drop shot. And then, on her fourth gold-medal point, she watched with glee as a Kerber forehand sailed wide before flinging her racket into the Rio air.
At that moment, with fans draped in red, white and blue Puerto Rican flags jumping in the stands, she became the first athlete from Puerto Rico to win an Olympic gold medal.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. The 22-year-old Puig had never even reached a quarterfinal in a Grand Slam tournament. She was ranked 34th in the world and had just one title to her name. But after beating the reigning French Open champion, Garbine Muguruza, and two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, Puig gutted out a three-set win over Kerber in the gold-medal match.
Instantly, she was a star in Puerto Rico. She had brought home the island nation’s ninth medal at the Games. She was the first Puerto Rican woman to win an Olympic medal of any kind. Moments after her celebration, her team pulled her aside to show her live videos from Puerto Rico. People at watch parties, people dancing and celebrating her victory. Singer and actress Jennifer Lopez, who is of Puerto Rican descent, reached out to congratulate her. That was when it hit Puig: This was a big moment not just for her but for her entire island.
Days later, she landed in Puerto Rico for a victory parade. Thousands of people waving the Puerto Rican flag showed up. The San Juan police organized a motorcade around her car, and she waved to the crowd as she was driven through the city. A sea of Puerto Ricans gathered on either side of the road just to catch a glimpse of her. She stopped to sign flags. She couldn’t believe this was her life.
“Puerto Rico has gone through a tough time,” she told reporters at the time. “And it is my responsibility to give them a bit of good news every once in a while.”
But fate had something else in mind.
PUIG WOKE UP in Spain in April of 2022 and knew her tennis career was over. The day before, she had lost 7-5, 6-0 to Danielle Collins at the Madrid Open. And this morning she couldn’t lift her right arm above her shoulder.
It had been through a lot. In December of 2019 she underwent surgery to correct nerve damage in her elbow that had forced her to wince with every racket-to-ball contact. The injury denied her a chance to defend her gold medal at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. In June of 2021, she shut down her season to undergo surgery on her biceps and shoulder. At the time, she said she was hoping to get healthy so she could play in the Paris Olympics in 2024.
But at the Madrid Open, she knew she had rushed her rehab, pushed herself too hard. And now she was paying with pain that had been her constant companion for years.
Her mind knew her career was finished, but her heart wasn’t quite ready to accept it. She entered a smaller tournament in France, but the pain remained. During her first-round match against France’s Fiona Ferro, she double-faulted, twice, in her first service game.
“You never really double-fault with a ball hitting on your side of the service line,” she said.
Now not even her heart could ignore the truth. She pulled out of the match at 1-2. She needed to go through another shoulder surgery just to improve her quality of life. Could she really play professional tennis after that? Her doctors said no.
She had reached a career-high ranking of No. 27 in 2016 and finished her career with a 303-215 record. She had earned more than $3.5 million in prize money. She had won a title in Strasbourg in 2014 and the silver medal at the 2011 Pan American Games. But, in June 2022, she sat down to post some really difficult news. At 28, her tennis dream was over.
“I would’ve loved to retire on my own terms,” she wrote on Instagram, “but sometimes life has other plans and we have to open new doors that lead to exciting possibilities.”
For the next few weeks, those open doors were elusive. It felt like her purpose was taken away from her. What was she supposed to do now? She was used to training and playing; that was her life. She was still rehabbing her shoulder, but the crippling pain that she endured while playing tennis was beginning to go away. Suddenly, she had all this free time and didn’t know what to do with all the energy inside of her.
She had always enjoyed working in broadcast journalism. So she continued working with ESPN and then with the Tennis Channel, doing live commentary in Spanish.
But nothing could fill the void she felt in her heart.
Rakitt, her fiancé at the time, was not only a former tennis player at Georgia Tech but also an avid runner. He had already done a couple of marathons, including the New York City Marathon, when Puig arrived at her crossroads. On one of the mornings when she felt her mood deteriorating, Rakitt asked her if she wanted to join him on a run. Although she had never really enjoyed running before, she accepted his invite.
They went on a 5-mile run. And Puig felt good. She could feel the fog in her mind clearing. And her lower body was perfectly healthy. She could run without feeling any discomfort in her shoulders.
One run turned into five runs and soon, she and Rakitt decided to sign up for the New York City Marathon. Caroline Wozniacki had done it back in 2014, and Puig had always wanted to give it a try. Why not, she thought.
Maybe this was her door.
RHYTHMICALLY PLACING ONE foot in front of the other, Puig suddenly felt it. It had been hours since she set out from Staten Island and crossed the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge into Brooklyn, and now she was struck by a long-lost feeling.
A feeling of complete adoration. A feeling of making her island nation proud.
Was it Mile 12? Mile 13? She couldn’t remember. But she looked up and saw a sea of Puerto Ricans. They were cheering for her. Hard. She could see Puerto Rican flags everywhere around her. It was her people, and they were proud of her.
In the middle of New York, she was swept back to Rio, to tennis, to her former life.
Tears ran down her face. Rakitt smiled at her as they plodded along.
A few miles later, Puig’s joy turned to concern when Rakitt felt so nauseous that he couldn’t see anymore. Puig stopped with him at a medical tent and helped him through the rest of the marathon, muttering words of encouragement, reminding him their celebratory pizza was waiting once they got to the finish line. She finished the race in just over 4½ hours, and Rakitt says she would have finished faster if not for his struggles.
As she ran along, she realized she had so many transferable skills she could bring to marathon running from tennis. She knew how to talk her brain into liking the discomfort. She loved enduring something difficult; she had done it over and over again in her tennis career. When Rakitt struggled on his run, she knew exactly what to tell him. “Tune out of your brain, listen to the people around you. Focus on their energy.”
“Throughout the training, I was the one who was pulling her along, telling her what the course was going to be like, what to expect after she crosses the bridge and everything,” Rakitt said. “But we got to race day and she was the one who absolutely crushed it.”
He added: “It worked out as a very effective premarital counseling.”
More than anything, Puig got a taste of what it’s like to represent Puerto Rico again. Fans cheering in Spanish. Fans with big smiles on their faces. She wanted more of that.
“I found a new purpose,” Puig said.
DAYS LATER, PUIG and Rakitt each said “I do” before friends and family in her hometown of San Juan. They flew back home to Atlanta and began to map out their marathon journey for the next two years.
Puig is a big believer in “putting a date on the calendar” and working her way to that goal on that date. It gives her something tangible to focus on. She would run the six major marathons by 2024. Boston, London and Chicago in 2023. Tokyo and Berlin in 2024.
There was one catch: To automatically qualify for the Boston Marathon, she needed to run a sub-3:30 marathon. She was nowhere close to that time. So, she reached out to the organizers and told them she was a pro athlete. She told them she had run the New York City Marathon and had a goal of running all six major marathons. She asked them if she could be given an opportunity to run the Boston Marathon. She did the same with the London Marathon.
In January 2023, she heard back from both: Yes. Puig and Rakitt looked at the dates — the two marathons were six days and 3,300 miles apart. They looked at each other and nodded.
“Let’s do this,” she said.
On Monday, Puig will run the second of the six major marathons in Boston, with Rakitt right by her side. Then, she will get on an airplane and head to London, where six days later she will run another marathon. Hopefully, she will get to witness a sea of Puerto Rican flags there as well.
Her goal Monday in Boston is to break the 4-hour mark. To achieve it, she has been training with COROS, a company specializing in performance-focused GPS watches. Puig’s coach, Derek Dalzell, worked on her training plan, and together they mapped out areas of improvement: endurance, pace, nutrition, recovery. The watch gathered data from every training run Puig went on — some 16 miles, some 12 miles and some 5 miles — and used the data to simulate her marathon time. It projected an improvement of 45 minutes.
For Puig, the objective is to shave multiple minutes off her New York City time. She says she’s prepared, even though she continued her commentary work for the Tennis Channel throughout her training.
“She is stubborn. She never finishes a workout early, she never lets me get down on myself, she refuses to stop once she puts her mind to a goal,” Rakitt said.
Puig went from being one of the best tennis players in the world to a regular runner in the marathon world. That’s fine with her. Running gave her the opportunity to learn and get better at something new.
“I wanted to prove to myself that I could excel at something that wasn’t just tennis. Now I’m proving to myself that I can accomplish something big again, after [leaving the sport] I was born and destined to do,” Puig said.
Does she want to be an Olympic runner? No. But, she wants to know that she can still push herself and find her new limits. It’s a competition with her own self, she says.
Puig and Rakitt have already decided what they will eat after crossing the Boston Marathon finish line. Burgers. They haven’t had one in months, because they want it to be special after the race, she says.
In between the London and Chicago marathons, Puig is planning to do a half-Ironman triathlon — cycling, swimming and running — in Augusta, Georgia, in September. Puig’s introduction to marathons has made her want to do really difficult things, she says, and a triathlon was the natural next step. It will be an early 30th birthday gift to herself.
In 2024, Puig plans to run the Tokyo and the Berlin marathons, which would get her the coveted Six Star medal from the Abbott World Major Marathons.
After that, maybe a full Ironman is somewhere down the road. First, there’s also a plan to complete a half Ironman in Puerto Rico next March.
“That would be cool,” she said. “We’re jumping all-in.”