“What does it take to be able to move relentlessly forward? What kind of person can sustain relentless forward movement?”
Let’s start from the very beginning – MY beginning. I’m sure this sounds very cliché, but I feel like I had a VERY unique childhood (doesn’t everybody?). I was born the only child to a somewhat prominent upper-middle class Puerto Rican family on the island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. My parents, Nestor and Iris Paonessa, were self-made, having built and operated a successful local trucking/delivery and U.S. Customs brokerage business (“Nestor’s Trucking”) on the island for over 30 years. Being so consumed with their work, they brought me into the world relatively late in the game; my mother was thirty-six years old when I was born and my father, forty-two.
To say that I was spoiled as a child is an understatement; birthdays and Christmases were AWESOME! I got all of the attention, all of the presents, and I was famous among my young friends and classmates because my parents would throw me the most epic birthday pool parties! I never wanted for anything and I got pretty much whatever I asked for, usually within the context of a reward for doing exceptionally well in school. From the time I received my first-ever grade on an assignment until the day I received my master’s degree, I was a straight-A student.
Admittedly, I am a perfectionist and a “finisher,” traits that I credit to my father who was the only child of a hard-line high school principal and a supremely devout Catholic mother in Puerto Rico (most of my memories of her involve her twiddling her rosary beads between her fingers while whispering prayers to herself). I am also an obsessive-compulsive workaholic, a positive thinker, and an incurable optimist, all traits that I credit to my mother who worked her way up from an incredibly poor upbringing in a family of twelve children on farmland in rural St. Croix in the 40’s and 50’s.
From a very early age she continuously worked multiple jobs to help support her fledgling family and eventually graduated as valedictorian of her high school. With the sponsorship of a local Baptist church minister’s family that she became close with as their babysitter, Iris became the first person in her family to attend college. She spent one year studying at Howard University in Washington, D.C. until her funds eventually ran dry, forcing her to return home to St. Croix and find work again.
While Iris was working as a secretary for a local shipping company on the waterfront of Christiansted, St. Croix’s largest town and seat of local government, a traveling Xerox machine repairman named Nestor from neighboring Puerto Rico became a frequent visitor to Iris’s office. Regular repair visits evolved into dates, and before they knew it they were married, starting a business, buying a house, and having ME!
Values that I inherited from both of my parents include a drive to always do my best in everything I do (the foundation of my competitive nature), and a desire to always do the “right thing.” While my father was decidedly more strict, militaristic, and hands-on in his approach to pushing me to excel in school and in my extracurricular activities (like racing sailboats, playing tennis, and playing the piano), my mother was clearly the “good cop,” the more sympathetic and compassionate of the two.
To this day she still fills the role of “helicopter mom” and my ultra-proud number one fan through her almost daily positively-affirming iPad text messages and phone calls, both of which are huge steps forward technologically for a woman who seriously never once touched a computer in her thirty-plus years as a small business owner (I can’t overstate how proud I am of her for finally learning how to use and master a flip cellphone and an iPad since she moved from St. Croix to Chapel Hill just six short years ago).
My parents weren’t what I would consider physically active themselves from an exercise standpoint, nor were they sports enthusiasts of any kind. Any athletic skills and interest in/appreciation for sports that I developed as a child were the direct result of school P.E. classes, lunchtime pick-up games on the playground at school, local after-school sports clinics, interscholastic sports, summer camps, and playing with friends from school and on my street.
As the token twiggy, awkward nerd and “teacher’s pet” with the big glasses, braces, and horrible acne in grade school, I was frequently the target of the stereotypical verbal and, pathetically, sometimes physical bullying from my peers. I was called “Four Eyes,” “Metal Mouth,” “Pizza Face,” “Chicken Legs,” “Nestor the Pester,” “Nestor Polyester” (my personal favorite), “Nestor the Molester” (everybody else’s favorite), and, ironically, whenever St. Croix experienced one of its routine island-wide power outages, “Nestor Power-nester” (who knew that name-calling could be so emPOWERing?).
At some point in the midst of it all, I made a pact with myself that someday in the future, when I would (hopefully) have a child of my own, I would make it a point NOT to name him or her anything that could possibly be misconstrued or made fun of – no rhymes, no intentional misspellings, no substitutions, no “sounds like” or “looks like” profanity or innuendo – nothing. However, with the encouragement and support of my parents, I brushed off and endured years of petty attacks; remained focused on my academic studies and my physical skills; continued to make regular high honor roll appearances, won spelling bees, math competitions, and science fairs; racked up wins at local junior sailing regattas and junior tennis tournaments, and even won local classical piano competitions against adult competitors.
Then it happened. Just as I was beginning to develop as a physically and mentally strong, athletic, and pseudo-independent young man while away at boarding school for my eleventh grade year at Palmer Tennis Academy in Tampa, Florida, I got the news in a tear-filled phone call from my mother that simultaneously broke my heart and enraged me, and I swear to this day that I never saw it coming: my parents were getting divorced.
My perfect little world and (what I thought was) my perfect little family fell apart seemingly overnight. My father who had always been there for me, coaching me and teaching me valuable life skills to always be handy and useful, pushing me towards perfection and success in everything I did, prodding me to never settle for less than the best, and taking pictures and videos of me at every major event in my life, was going to be moving to his recently-deceased father’s old house in San Juan, Puerto Rico – permanently. I would have to finish “manning-up” very quickly because it would be just me and my mom doing life in the Paonessa household for the foreseeable future, and now I was suddenly the man of the house.
I would finish out my senior year of high school back at my alma mater, Good Hope School in St. Croix, and continue on to apply to colleges like the rest of my classmates. All of my hard work and determination up until that point finally landed me at my first-choice school, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I was accepted into the undergraduate Athletic Training Education Program, and so began the next chapter of my life.
Anyone who knew “Nestor Polyester” the skinny nerd in St. Croix had no idea that the entire time they were witnessing the development of a young man with extreme levels of physical endurance and mental toughness. This is how my story begins…