Catalina rises to top but memories of Bogota bomb still haunt her
THE last thing Catalina Pelaez remembered on that February evening back in 2003 was signing the check at the club restaurant. She was 11 years old. She had gone to school that day in Bogota, Colombia, then went to the athletic club, which was like her second home, to play squash.
Her mother met her for dinner. They ate. Her brother called. He needed a ride. Her mother left to pick him up. Did Catalina want to come? No, she would stay and finish her dinner.
The bomb went off when the check came.
It was about 8 p.m., Catalina remembered. She regained consciousness in the parking garage, a floor below the restaurant. Cars were burning. Her shoulder and her ankle hurt. Oddly, her squash bag hung above her off a beam, but she couldn’t get up to reach it. She had no idea what had just happened.
Her parents wouldn’t find her until three hours later, in a nearby hospital.
Pelaez, a senior captain and number two player on the Trinity squash team, told her story Wednesday, a few days after her team had won its first College Squash Association national championship in 11 years, and a day after she received the prestigious Richey Women’s Squash Award, given to a player “who best exemplifies the ideals of squash in her love and devotion to the game, her strong sense of fairness and her excellence of play and leadership.”
Now 22, she has come a long way in the 11 years since terrorists targeted her club, the Club El Nogal in Bogota, on Feb. 7, 2003. Thirty-six people died in the bombing, including six children, and hundreds were injured.
“She had always been an internationally recognized junior player,” Trinity coach Wendy Bartlett said. “Then when that happened, people were like, ‘Oh my God, this kid is incredible, for surviving that, being so young, coming back and becoming an even better squash player.'”
Pelaez started playing with her brother and some friends at age 9. She quickly learned to love the sport and began taking lessons and entering tournaments.
‘When I started playing the tournaments, there weren’t a lot of girls playing,” she said. “I always played with boys. When I was in national tournaments, I played with the boys until I was under-17 because there was not enough women. When I was 10, I won trophies. I came in first place in the national tournament.”
Club El Nogal quickly became her home away from home, only five minutes away by car. She would go to school, go to the club and play, then hang out with friends.
“It’s a sports club, business center, hotel,” she said. “A lot of politicians have meetings there. That was a target for the terrorists.”
At the time, Pelaez said, Colombia had been relatively quiet after years of strife and violence.
“This was actually really surprising,” she said. “Colombia had a bad period with all the drug cartels. Those years, it was so common. Bombings. It could be every day. After that, it settled down. This was one of the biggest terrorist attacks.”
Feb. 7 was a Friday and the club was packed with people celebrating birthdays and weddings.
“It was so strange, I didn’t hear or feel anything,” Pelaez said. “I think I’m so lucky that I didn’t. I was on the fifth floor and the bomb was on the third floor.
“I was unconscious for 15-20 minutes. I woke up and I was still in the club. I was so confused. I thought I was in a dream. Maybe I fell asleep waiting for my mom to come. I was laying down on my left arm. Everything was destroyed. There were cars burning all over the place. It was really, really hot. I couldn’t move. I was crying and screaming for help.”
Someone came. She was carried into an ambulance. When her mother returned with her brother, the streets around the club were choked with traffic. Someone told them what happened. They abandoned the car and ran to the club.
After surgery, Pelaez spent a week in the hospital. She had a broken right tibia and fibula and left arm. She was burned and had a deep gash in her knee; there is still a scar there as a reminder. She missed two months of school, six months of squash. But she returned to the court. And she returned to the rebuilt club.
“It was hard,” she said. “It felt weird, taking that first step in. For me, when something bad happens, you just have to face it. That helps better to recover from it. I wanted to go. I know some people who don’t want to go back there.”
Pelaez knew about Trinity after playing a squash tournament there as a junior in high school. Men’s coach Paul Assaiante went to her club with the national team and talked up Trinity. So did some Colombian players she knew who went there. So, four years ago, she came to Hartford.
In her first year, the Bantams finished fourth in the team championships. Her sophomore year, they were third; last year, they were second, losing a heartbreaker to Harvard 5-4.
“The team decided they were going to start training really hard that spring,” Bartlett said. “They started on a huge weight and strength and conditioning program. That was their mission.”
Last weekend, at Princeton, they beat Harvard 5-4.
“I didn’t lose a match this season,” said Pelaez, who was 14-0 going into this weekend’s College Squash Association individual championships at the University of Pennsylvania. “That was one of my goals.”
Pelaez is a studio arts major, minoring in architectural studies and Italian. She wants to try to play squash professionally for year upon graduation, then she will see where that leads.
“I feel very fortunate to have had her,” Bartlett said. “We’re really going to miss her.”