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IUPUI Magazine

Business Issue, Summer 2007

At home in America's heartland

Article by Ric Burrous

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When he spends time in his Ecuadorian hometown of Guayaquil, Gabriel Garcia is just a short drive from both the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains. Winters are mild, the other seasons hot. And he enjoys it all.

But the IUPUI student has found a home he likes in the heartland of America, playing tennis - and playing it well - for a Jaguars' program on the rise.

For him, it's a dream come true, even one that's 3,000 miles - give or take a hard serve or two - from home.

"I wanted to study abroad starting when I was 15 years old," says Garcia, who transferred to IUPUI a year ago from Mount Olive College in the North Carolina town of the same name. The 5-foot-11 senior-to-be enjoyed a successful playing career there, earning all-conference honors both of his years and leading the school to national rankings in its division both seasons. But the small college town of less than 4,600 people, located southeast of Raleigh, wasn't "home."

So he talked to friends, including former high school tennis teammate Javier Saab, who already was a member of the IUPUI Jaguars' tennis team. Saab's invitation turned into a visit, and eventually the transfer, by Garcia.

One record-setting, award-winning season later, the relationship is a hit for both player and team.

Good first impression

Garcia made a dramatic first impression on his teammates, his coach and the rest of the Mid-Continent Conference (now known as The Summit League) during his first year as a Jaguar.

He posted 21 victories in singles, second-best in IUPUI history and tops since the school joined the ranks of NCAA's Division I. Garcia led the league in singles victories and was named the Mid-Con's "Player of the Week" seven times, twice in the abbreviated fall season and five times in the spring. That made him the league's Newcomer of the Year and a first-team all-league selection.

Not bad for a youngster whose first athletic love was soccer. But that changed when he was 11, "went to summer camp and learned to play" tennis.

"It took a while before I got to be good," he says, flashing the quick, easy grin he uses often with his teammates. "But by the time I was 15, I was ranked in the top 10 in my country. By 18, I was in the top five, and then I became number one in Ecuador."

Different style of play

Garcia's natural playing style differs from most U.S.-born players, who grow up on hard courts playing serve-and-volley tennis. Like many South American players, Garcia grew up on the softer clay surface, learning to play a game filled with long rallies, baseline shot after baseline shot - in effect, a sweaty, full-speed chess match.

It's a style that suits the athletically gifted Jaguar star to a T, according to his coach, Brandon Currie.

"Gabriel's style is relentless," says Currie, who just finished his second season at the helm of the men's tennis program. "He goes non-stop every point. He hustles on every point, he doesn't mind long points, and he never gives up on a point. He has a classic clay-court mind-set."

That attitude is as much about the mind as the body.

"His mental toughness and his heart are what set Gabriel apart from other players," adds Currie. "He has a burning desire to compete - and win!"

Garcia believes his coach has it pegged right.

"I'm quick and can get to a lot of balls that other players might not," he says. "I love to wear down my competition - that's how I play. I love it when my opponent starts to get frustrated and starts yelling," he adds with a laugh.

"Gabriel was definitely a surprise to me," Currie admits. "I knew he had talent and that he might even play number-one (singles) for us, but I just didn't know how well he would fare against some of the better players in our league."

Currie quickly realized his expectations might have been shortsighted when, in IUPUI's first tournament of the fall season at Ball State, Garcia won the singles consolation title in Flight A (each team's top players) despite losing a tough opening match in a three-set struggle.

Lure of the city

Indianapolis has proved to be a "much better fit" for Garcia than his first U.S. home in North Carolina.

"I love the big city," Garcia admits. "Indianapolis is much more like my home city of Guayaquil - there is so much life, so much music, just so much more!"

He admits that fall and spring aren't quite comfortable for a tennis player used to playing in 90-degree heat day after day. And winter? Forget about it.

"I really don't like the cold," he admits. "It is not something I can get used to. But it is the only drawback (to Indianapolis)."

He's thankful that Saab recommended the campus.

"I came to IUPUI because of my friend Javier," says Garcia, who played tennis with his friend at Centro Educativo La Moderna high school in Guayaquil. "He liked this place and so I decided to come here, too."

Getting together with his old friend had obvious advantages on the court, but it has given new focus to Garcia's career plans, as well. The son of a civil engineer father and interior decorator mother, he now plans to join the IU Kelley School of Business this fall to earn a degree in marketing, with an eye toward graduating in December of 2008.

"I'd like to stay in America for a couple of years after college, working and saving money, they return home to open a small business," he says. It's a goal that he acknowledges may be a bit more realistic than his original goal when he came to the U.S.: to become a professional tennis player.

Fitting in well

Garcia has adapted well to life in the Midwestern United States.

He's taken full advantage of his social time - he particularly enjoyed watching an Indiana Pacers game - and enjoys the food and fun that a major urban center has to offer.

Music is a particular passion. When Garcia wants to relax, he listens to music.

"I especially enjoy electronic music just before a match it gets me revved up," he laughs.

Like most of other young men his age - U.S., Ecuadorian or otherwise - Garcia also enjoys trips to the movies to watch his favorites genres: action films and horror movies.

"They are the best," he says firmly.

Garcia keeps in touch with the home fires burning, too, thanks to the wonders of cell phones.

"I talk to my family every day, and I do a lot of instant messaging," he admits, noting that he stays current with his parents and his two sisters, one older than him, the other younger. "It is good to stay in touch with them, to know what they are doing."

Though he enjoys his time in Indiana, he cherishes trips home each summer to work at tennis camps, where he gets a glimpse of younger Ecuadorian players following in his footsteps.

"I have had many good times in this country," Garcia says. "I have made many friends and enjoyed my experiences. But Ecuador is my home, the place of my family."

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