The spotlight Macey Cintron found herself in on Aug. 11 would be enough to induce nerves in almost anyone.
But as the 13-year-old North Forsyth Middle School student stepped into the circle to pitch against China at the World Baseball Softball Confederation U19 World Cup in Irvine, Calif., there was even more uncertainty. Cintron was an outlier in the international competition, being by far the youngest player not just on the Puerto Rican national team, but the entire 17-team tournament.
But after she settled in, the nerves and pressure of representing a country and facing much older players dissipated, and ultimately, she helped lead Puerto Rico to a 5-3 win.
“I didn't know what to expect, if I was going to come out on top or if I would struggle,” Cintron said. “But I did really well in my first game against China, and that kind of made me step back for a second and realize I could do it.”
Cintron, just an eighth grader, already has the tools and talent of a high school player, and by representing the island her family hails from, she hopes to continue her path not just through the high school ranks but one day into Olympic competition.
“It's been probably one of the best softball experiences so far,” Cintron said. “It’s nice to be able to see a whole different level of competition and get to play with girls that are from the same place that I am. It's just nice to see the impact that it has on me.”
Softball has had an impact on Cintron’s life since her early years, with the sport running through her immediate family. Her father Angel played semipro softball, and her mother has played and coached in the college game. Their shared background helped shape Cintron’s budding career as a player from the ripe age of 4.
“I was always at the field practicing, just learning more about the game,” she said.
Macey grew up in Florida, but she moved to Forsyth County last year. As a pitcher, her throws can reach speeds of 63 to 67 miles per hour, while relying on her curveball, changeup and dropball to keep hitters off balance.
With that kind of talent, she’s been all over the country at camps to help gain exposure, and at a camp held at the University of Florida, coach Karla Claudio, who played for Puerto Rico herself, was adamant that Cintron try out for the Puerto Rican U19 national team.
Although she was born in the United States, the U.S. national team has age restrictions for its U19 team, requiring players to be high school seniors or college freshmen. Puerto Rico’s team did not have those requirements, and with her father originally from the island, she had another way to start competing at that high level.
“It's a way to keep her Olympic dream alive,” Angel Cintron said. “She’s too young to do it in 2020, but she's on track to be on track for the Olympic selection committee down the line. It's different routes -- she has both options as she gets older, but right now, the only option she had was the Puerto Rican team because there's no restriction.”
Tryouts for the team were held earlier this year, and even though Cintron thought she did particularly well, she was still surprised when she found out she’d been chosen.
“I just wasn't really expecting it just because of my age,” she said. “When I got the email that I made it, I was really surprised and really excited to be able to represent my country.”
For Puerto Rico, sports are a significant part of the culture with its national baseball and basketball teams seeing success over the years. It’s technically a U.S. territory, but in international competition, it’s treated as an independent country with its own Olympic committee. That’s the way many residents see it, too.
Recently, sports have served as a nice diversion for the island. Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, and early this month, widespread protests ultimately forced its governor to resign amidst a highly-publicized scandal. None of that was lost on Cintron or the rest of her team, with their overall mission being more than just winning.
“It's very nice to know that over there in Puerto Rico, sports unify the country,” Cintron said. “[Our] coach was talking to us the other day, and she was like, ‘Even though the government is having issues, sports unify a country. If we do well then that will make everybody else feel good about their softball team and know that [we’re] representing them in a good way.’”
Cintron’s time playing against international competition is just getting started: In October, she’ll be representing Puerto Rico again in the U17 Pan American Games in Colombia. She hopes that will be just another step in achieving her Olympic dream.