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Devastating Hurricane, Mother's Fight for Life Inspire Puerto Rico Karate Star

Janessa Fonseca Romero

Just four months after taking up karate, Janessa won gold medals in combat and kata (in forms) at an international event in Florida. She quickly became the champion in her weight class in Puerto Rico.

The power outage isn’t what most scared Janessa Fonseca Romero when Hurricane Maria descended upon Puerto Rico on Sept. 16, 2017. Nor the dwindling water supply. Or the roads in ruin.

Romero, 16 at the time, just wanted her momma.

Vanessa Romero was in New York, and she wasn’t calling from or answering her phone as one of the deadliest Atlantic hurricanes in over a decade ravaged Puerto Rico.

“It was horrible,” Janessa said. “But my little brother (Jan) is one year younger than me, and I had to pretend to be the strong one and try to figure it all out.”

Fortunately, Janessa wasn’t alone. Her aunt was around, though she was scrambling to find milk for her newborn son.

Weeks passed with Janessa not hearing from her mother.

To make matters worse, two of Janessa’s escapes — school and karate — weren’t an option. She also missed the World Youth Championships in Spain because Hurricane Maria, which caused a projected $90 billion in damage, had wreaked havoc at the airport.

But Janessa’s most pressing dream came true just past two weeks into Puerto Rico’s nightmare: Her mom came home.

“I was pretty excited,” Janessa said. “I felt weightless.”

A little more than a year later, Janessa’s life is still chaotic. Yet she’s able to attend an important international event, the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where karate is one of four sports — along with dance sport, roller sports and sport climbing — making its debut.

And her mom will be right there by Janessa’s side.

“It’s amazing,” Vanessa said. “I don’t have words to describe how proud I am of her.”

Janessa Fonseca Romero
Janessa Romero is the youngest member of Puerto Rico’s karate team at the Youth Olympic Games. Courtesy photo

The Passion

When she was younger, Janessa participated in fencing, volleyball and track and field. Her little brother Jan was having some problems with his fine-motor skills, and he was signed up for karate.

Janessa thought karate looked fun, so she signed up, too.

She liked the strategy of the sport, and her athleticism was obvious.

“I’ll make her a champion,” one instructor told Vanessa.

Vanessa juggled work and Janessa’s training, including early-morning running sessions.

Just four months after taking up karate, Janessa won gold medals in combat and kata (in forms) at an international event in Florida. She quickly became the champion in her weight class in Puerto Rico. Then, during the 2014 Pan-American Youth Championships in Peru, she earned the No. 1 ranking among 300 athletes in her division and at her level. She also won titles in Mexico, New York and Venezuela.

After initial setbacks, Janessa earned gold medals at the Pan-Am and Central-American Games.

“I hate losing,” Janessa said. “I think it’s a big deal when I lose because everyone hopes and is waiting to know if I win. I have that pressure because I have been winning all these years. But when I lose, it’s a big deal, and it hurts a lot. So I’m a very competitive person.”

Her Inspiration

Vanessa Romero traveled to New York to attend to an family emergency. But while there, she had an asthma attack, went into a coma and was transported to a hospital.

No one knew she had been hospitalized, including her sister, daughter and son.

“It was so hard,” Vanessa said. “When I woke, I just wanted to be with my family. I couldn’t believe it was happening. Even though they were with my sister, I just wanted to be secure with them (her children).”

Despite the challenges and fears, Janessa is grateful her mother was not in Puerto Rico.

“Or else she would have died at home,” alluding to the problems hospitals in Puerto Rico had to deal with during the hurricane.

Janessa couldn’t go to school for a month and was unable to train for a month and a half. But when she did, Janessa had a renewed inspiration.

“The truth is, she’s been there since Day 1,” Janessa said of her mother. ”Even when I want to give up, she tells me that I can do it, and I’m supposed to keep going, that I can do big things. That’s why my mom is my motivation. She almost died, and she’s always been there for me.”

As she resumed her training, Janessa made a bold promise to her mother.

“I was crying every night, asking to God that she could watch me at the Youth Olympic Games,” Janessa said. “I prayed to God that he let me accomplish my promise.”

In June, during an international event in Croatia, Janessa achieved that goal.

She is the youngest member of Puerto Rico’s karate team at the Youth Olympic Games.

Since March, Janessa said she’s changed her fighting style, and she can’t wait to compete in Buenos Aires (the karate competition is scheduled for Oct. 17-18).

And while she’s thrilled her mom is with her, Janessa feels even more motivation to succeed.

“It was a year already since that horrible thing happened,” Janessa said. “But that doesn’t make me lose the focus. I want to go there, and I want to win and give Puerto Rico what they deserve. The hurricane gives me more strength.”

Sports in this article

Karate