Women's basketball: Elgin native Castro, now a senior at NIU, has come a long way
Paulina Castro has always been a fighter.
And now Castro has been selected to join a group where she can use her voice to help continue the fight for all things related to college women's basketball.
She was recently selected as the Mid-American Conference's representative to the newly-formed NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Student-Athlete Engagement Group.
The group, formed in collaboration with the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, will serve as an amplifying voice for women's basketball on key initiatives, legislation and other issues. It consists of current NCAA Division I women's basketball student-athletes with each of the 32 conferences having one representative.
But there's more to tell about Paulina Castro than just the fact she's a senior at Northern Illinois University and a captain of the Huskies' women's basketball team.
Castro, an Elgin native who graduated from Harvest Christian Academy in 2016, has battled Hodgkins lymphoma since December of that year, when she was a freshman at NIU.
So compelling was her fight with the disease that #pcstrong trended heavily on Twitter as Harvest Christian and NIU rallied around the 5-foot-8 guard and her battle with cancer.
She ended up redshirting her freshman year but had productive campaigns the next two years, playing in 55 games for coach Lisa Carlsen.
The injury bug caught up with Castro last season, limiting her playing time to just three games.
That was then, this is now
"I'm good. I feel pretty good and body-wise I'm great," Castro told me earlier this week, noting that she will have her yearly cancer checkup in December.
"I was injured a lot (last year) but right now is the healthiest I've felt in all my years here."
We should pause for a moment of gratitude just for that.
The last time I saw Castro face-to-face was Feb. 2, 2017 when Harvest Christian held a #pcstrong Night. She wore a hat that night to hide the effects of the treatments she was undergoing. She attended the event just hours after her fourth chemotherapy treatment.
A fighter, for sure.
There was no hat needed when we met on Zoom earlier this week. The only difference I saw in her was she's grown up. She's 22 now and graduating from college in December. Even via a Zoom screen it's clear she's become a mature young adult.
And she's excited to be playing basketball, as NIU gets ready for a season set to begin with practices on Nov. 25, hoping for a Dec. 30 season opener at home against Ohio.
"Our coaches have been pretty clear about how important it is for us to socially distance," Castro said of playing basketball amid the COVID-19 pandemic. "There's really no reason to be outside of our team bubble. When November 25th comes around we're ready to get rolling."
A voice for the issues
While Castro finishes up her degree in kinesiology -- she's currently an intern for NIU Senior Associate Athletics Director Debra Boughton -- she continues to be active in other campus activities, including the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, the Student-Athlete Diversity and Inclusion Committee and the Captain's Council, which meets directly with Athletic Director Sean Frazier. She's also involved in Athletes in Action, a faith-based group.
And now the newly formed NCAA committee, which is the first of its kind for any NCAA sport.
"It's such an honor to be a part of this group and to be able to represent the MAC," Castro said. "This group is special and allows us to collectively communicate our opinion on important discussion topics. With all the different circumstances and uncertainties student-athletes are having to face this year, it's very important that we have a voice in decisions that directly impact us. The fact that I get to be a part of this and represent not only NIU but the MAC is incredible, and I'm so excited for this new role. I've definitely taken some bigger steps in leadership roles this year."
"Paulina is a perfect representative for this NCAA student leadership group," said Carlsen. "Her experience with SAAC, our diversity and inclusion committee and her status as a captain on our team give her great perspective during a time where perspective is critical. She will be a great voice for the MAC in discussions on crucial issues."
Castro said the group will meet monthly -- its first meeting was August 30, where the topics were COVID, start dates and games.
A time for thanks, and faith
As Castro looks to her future -- she's undecided where she will attend grad school but knows she wants to become a coach -- she's grateful to have come this far.
"There are a lot of people at NIU who have helped me," she said. "I've been through a lot in these four, now going on five years. I've matured a lot. I've been put into a lot of leadership roles and I can thank my coaches for preparing me for those roles. And my parents (Pablo and Elisa). They have always motivated me to keep going."
She has also relied on her deep Christian faith to help carry her through the tough times.
"I've grown in (faith) tremendously," she said. "My relationship with God is not comparable from freshman year to what it is now.
"All of these things have helped me become who I am."
Things that will surely continue to mold her into a successful future.