Paolo Cucalon has been under the spotlight since he was a young boy.
The senior from Palmira, Colombia was ranked a top-five tennis player in his home country ever since he started playing at the age of six. Now a member of the Temple men’s tennis team, Cucalon once thought he wanted to give up the sport.
Ramiro Cucalon, Paolo Cucalon’s father, is a surgeon and was a volunteer doctor for a bullring in Palmira for 10 years. Paolo Cucalon accompanied his father to the matches and fell in love with the sport.
After attending hundreds of matches, Paolo Cucalon, then 12 years old, decided he wanted to be a competitive bullfighter.
“The first time that the bull passed by me, it got super close,” Paolo Cucalon said. “I avoided it, and that’s one of my happiest moments. It came in so fast. Your adrenaline is so high, and you get a rush of emotions.”
Ramiro Cucalon can remember bringing Paolo Cucalon to his first match.
“He was scared at the start of that match mainly because of how big and strong the bulls were,” he said. “To be that young and have all of the applause, ovations, everything being thrown into the ring, and then the matador possibly dying in the ring, that’s a lot to deal with. But over time he adapted to it all and loved it.”
Ramiro Cucalon never wanted his son to go into bullfighting. Even though the mortality rate is much lower than many people think, he never wanted his son to be in that situation, he said.
Sofia Cucalon, his sister, said her family wanted to show him bullfighting was more than just avoiding an oncoming 1,100-pound bull.
“It wasn’t going to be easy, and we wanted to demonstrate that to him,” Sofia Cucalon said. “It required a lot more courage and passion than anything. He had the passion, but we weren’t so sure he had the courage. He very quickly realized that potentially being a bullfighter wasn’t for him. He was so afraid of the bull that he could barely even stand in front of the ‘burladero,’” which is the panel that guards bullfighters against the animal.
Paolo Cucalon’s bullfighting career was short-lived. He competed in five amateur matches with smaller bulls that weigh about 700 pounds. He came away with no injuries other than a few broken fingers, he said.
He immediately returned to tennis. He was recruited to Jacksonville State University in 2016, where he spent the first two years of college. He transferred to Temple before the 2018-19 season.
Last season, Paolo Cucalon went a combined 35-14 in both singles and doubles competition for Temple.
While he was once trying to be a bullfighter, he’s happy with the decision that he made to come back to tennis, he said.
“It’s a really scary scene. It ended up not being for me, I said ‘no’ quickly,” he added. “I never had the confidence to do it because while it is a bull, it doesn’t feel like you’re playing with an animal. And here at Temple, I’ve achieved many great things with this team.”