May 25, 2016
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
Irina Falconi will always remember her first WTA win, although not for the reason she wants to.
Falconi’s championship at the Claro Open Colsanitas on April 17, 2016 in Bogota, Colombia — a 6-2, 2-6, 6-4 victory over Spain’s Silvia Soler-Espinosa — was overshadowed by events that took place only hours earlier, when her home country of Ecuador, some 600 miles to the south, was hit by a devastating magnitude-7.8 earthquake. The quake claimed more than 600 lives, injured tens of thousands more and did extensive damage mainly to the cities of Manta, Portoviejo and Pedernales but also throughout the country.
“I actually found about it right after my semifinal match,” recalled the recently-turned 26-year-old Falconi, who has been on the tour since 2010. “I remember my mom sending me a message. She just wanted to make sure that I was okay. I was like, ‘Why is she asking me that?’ She told me there were earthquakes in Ecuador. I’ve been in an earthquake before but it wasn’t anything like this. My dad was there at that time and he witnessed the road literally falling apart in front of him. He was supposed to come and watch my final but the roads were so bad he was unable to get to the airport.”
The next day, following the victory over Soler-Espinosa, Falconi faced the press with her emotions being pulled in diametrically opposite directions.
“It was bittersweet for sure,” she recalled. “There were a lot of people who were like, ‘Oh, how do you feel?’ I’m like, ‘I really don’t know how most of my family is right now.’ That was probably the scariest thing. I wanted to celebrate but at the same time, I knew the amount of people that were still not found and were caught in the rubble. It definitely put it all in perspective.
“The house that I was born in was totally destroyed. It’s gone,” she added. “There were a lot of people that were affected, thankfully, no one in my immediate family was hurt but my dad had a lot of friends over there that were affected. I had a close family friend that had his 26-year-old daughter pass away. There were definitely some really heartbreaking stories.”
Out of the heartbreak, Falconi and her boyfriend, professional boxer Travis Hartman, felt an urgent need to do something. So they decided to help raise money.
They set a goal of $5,000, which they planned to raise through GoFundMe. Falconi would then match that figure, donating $5,000 of her own.
They didn’t count on the response their request would get.
“About a week and a half later, all of a sudden the number was $25,568,” Falconi said.
Especially heart-warming was a $10,000 donation from Georgia Tech alumnus Arthur Brannan.
“That was totally humbling,” she said. “We were so excited about that.”
As of May 24th, GoFundMe had raised $1,508,527 for Ecuador Earthquake relief via its 379 campaigns and 17,901 donors.
Falconi and Hartman have closed their account so as to get the money raised into the hands of causes that can actually help in rebuilding.
“We’re going to receive this check from GoFundMe, and then we’re going to provide a check to UNICEF from there,” she said. “They’re going to go ahead and utilize the money to help the people that were affected over there. When something like that happens people go nuts. They want to send money right away. But it’s after about a month or two, that’s when you really need it because they’re still trying to rebuild. The whole city is pretty much in rubble right now. They need all the help they can possibly get.”
While the GoFundMe account is closed, Falconi, who is in France preparing for the French Open, isn’t done helping her country. She is determined to go to Ecuador with Hartman and do what they can to get involved.
She admits it was difficult thinking of going to Roland Garros to play or go anywhere other than Ecuador.
“At first I wanted to go right away,” she recalled. “It’s very traumatic. It’s much easier said than done to just go down there and be like, ‘I’m going to help everybody.’ It’s one of those things that you have to really be mentally prepared for. We’d like to go maybe after Wimbledon and help out, but it’s just a matter of logistics. We have to figure out our schedules, but we really want to go down there and help out as much as possible.”