Friday, November 24th, 2017

USM wrestler makes a stand thousands of miles from home

Posted on November 08, 2017 in Sports
By USM Free Press

River Plouffe Vogel

Raul Gierbolini is a freshman, and he is one of the few students who is from Puerto Rico at USM. Gierbolini is also on the wrestling team, which is why he came to USM, despite it being so far from his home. This speaks to the reputation the USM wrestling team has amassed with Mike Morin, in his third year as head coach, widely regarded as one of the top Division 3 programs in the country. Gierbolini grew up in Carolina, Puerto Rico, and wrestled there since he was a child. He is a five time Pan American Games medalist and three time National Champion for Puerto Rico. He spent his senior year at Somerset Academy Charter High School, in Florida, where he racked up an impressive overall record of 83-28, and was ranked fourth in the state for his weight class. Gierbolini is easy to spot in crowd, probably wearing a winter hat pulled over his ears, while sporting a big smile on his face. He is open about who he is, his community, his faith and his culture.

Recently however, Gierbolini’s mind has been back with his family and friends. The weight he carries on his shoulders is obvious, thousands of miles from home. On Sept. 20, a category four hurricane with 150 mile per hour winds made direct landfall on Puerto Rico. Experts say it was like a 50 mile wide tornado that swept directly over the island. Almost a month later, as of Oct. 16, some 86 percent of the island’s 1.57 million electricity customers were still without power. There is barely any clean drinking water, foods, supplies and any other essential resources. After the hurricane, Gierbolini knew he had to do something.

“It’s been hard being so far away from home, while at the same time, trying to do something bigger,” said Gierbolini.

Gierbolini has hosted several fundraisers on campus and has worked with his local church as well. He has also paired up with the Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) to raise money and spread awareness for the cause. However, that is not always so easy.

“It’s been very hard, especially on this campus, being the only Puerto Rican here. It hurts, it affects me, but I’m used to it. If I was able to be connected to more Hispanics it would help, because when we are together, we are a lot stronger than we are divided,” said Gierbolini. “It’s been incredible the way people have helped, especially with me just being one. I think it shows the power of going out and asking questions, and being persistent.”

Gierbolini is no stranger to stepping up and being in the spotlight. Some might say it runs in the family. Gierbolini’s father is a commander in the U.S. Army in Puerto Rico and has been working tirelessly around the clock since Maria made landfall. It is clear how proud Gierbolini is of his father, and the role his whole family has played in helping others, but also that he feels torn in being so far away. His family is from the north side of the island. They live on a big farm and even though their house survived, they saw huge loses in trees and livestock.

Gierbolini explained, “Puerto Rico has a metropolitan area, which is less rural than the rest of the island. The metropolitan area gets more energy and focus, so those areas have seen power come back, but a lot of Puerto Rico, like a lot of it, in the rural parts, it’s been hard to contact people. It’s been hard to get to people and it’s been hard to get resources to people. It’s just hard, with no electricity and no water it causes a domino effect. Things can’t get to places because their isn’t good communication.”  

It could take anywhere from 45 to 80 billion dollars to completely rebuild from the damage of hurricane Maria. The U.S. government has pledged to do everything it can, but help and support have been slow and insufficient. Images of the aftermath are jaw dropping, and frequently described as apocalyptic by viewers. A month after its landfall, barely anything has changed and the media firestorm that once covered every aspect of the storm’s destruction has subsided as well. Without the coverage, people’s minds have started to wander elsewhere. That is why Gierbolini’s work has only just begun.

Puerto Rico will need funding and support for months, possibly even years, to come. Every aspect of life there has been changed, and thousands of Puerto Ricans have left with their families to continue their educations in a different state, another overlooked impact of the hurricane’s aftermath.

“As Hispanics we don’t really lose who we are has Hispanics, like the beauty of it, but we do lose some of our culture. There are a lot of Hispanics who look for refuge in another place, they don’t really accept their home how it is. But I love Puerto Rico, when I finish here I’m going back. I don’t want to see it suffer,” said Gierbolini. “There are thousands of Puerto Ricans that have left the island to continue high school or university elsewhere. That is sad for me, I’ve seen so many people that I know go to another place, but so many can’t leave, they don’t have the money, they have to stay. My parents won’t leave, it’s our home.”

Gierbolini’s determination mirrors that of millions of Puerto Ricans who are back home putting the pieces back together. They have lost everything but hope. They have been ignored and neglected by their own country and president, yet this does not stop them. For such a tiny group of islands, the spirit and culture of Puerto Rico is larger than life. Gierbolini is a perfect example of that, bringing that same spirit and perseverance thousands of miles from home, to a tiny school in Maine.

If you want to get involved you can email River Plouffe Vogel at river@usmfreepress.org, or Raul Gierbolini at raul.gierbolini@maine.edu.