For Isalys Quinones, achieving the Olympic dream meant balancing passions

Puerto Rico's Isalys Quinones dribbles a basketball while looking up.
Puerto Rico center Isalys Quinones controls the ball against China on Tuesday. Quinones’ passion for basketball and environmental engineering makes her stand out among her on-court peers.
(Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

Isalys Quinones had a choice.

She could chase her professional basketball dream, to be like her favorite players Lisa Leslie and Candace Parker, or work toward a career as an environmental engineer.

She had signed a contract to play professionally in Greece but three weeks later, the pandemic shut down her league. She went back to Chula Vista, to her parents’ home and tried to figure it out — basketball or work.

“So, I was doing a little bit of both,” Quinones said.

Months later, things haven’t changed with Quinones starting at center for the Puerto Rican women’s basketball team while trying to keep tabs on her work. Her phone fills with news about practice times and new product launches while she plays against pro basketball players from around the world.

Portland kept former Laker Pau Gasol as an assistant coach after he injured his ankle. He still wanted to play, so he joined Spain’s Olympic team.

July 31, 2021

Most of the women she’s trying to beat are studying their statistics on the internet while Quinones, who almost majored in statistics at Dartmouth, is managing her LinkedIn profile.

Her spot in two worlds — the business one and the basketball one — forced her to face questions not everyone playing basketball at these Olympics has to deal with. The biggest, she said, was whether or not to tell prospective employers about her other life as an Olympic athlete.


“That was the hardest part for me finding jobs,” Quinones, 23, said. “Do I let people know that there is going to be a chunk of time where I’m not going to be working? Do they like athletes?”

With jobs at a premium, Quinones wanted to keep it sort of a secret, leaving the whole Olympic starting center thing off her resume, while looking for a job that would let her make the world a more environmentally conscious place.

Quinones had heard too many stories from women playing her sport about bosses who weren’t OK with saying “goodbye” to their employees so they could work on zone defense and corner threes.

“The reality is that most of the athletes, especially with team Puerto Rico, they do have jobs, but they end up having to quit them,” Quinones’ mother, Frances, said. “Because most employers, you know, they don’t allow you to take an extensive amount of time off, even if it’s without pay and then allow you to come back.”

Puerto Rico's Isalys Quinones has the ball while an opponent runs behind her.
Puerto Rico’s Isalys Quinones controls the ball during a game against Belgium on Friday.
(Eric Gay / Associated Press)

“Isalys has had so much pressure on her and she has been able to just balance it and come out to be at the Olympic level.”

— Frances Quinones, Isalys’ mother

Luckily Quinones had a former teammate at Dartmouth working with a Bay Area-based company, QNOPY, that had a boss who loved hiring former athletes.

“Whenever we hire athletes,” said Saurabh Gogate, QNOPY founder and chief executive, “I’m blown away by the work ethic.”

Frances marvels at it too, seeing her daughter balance basketball at Otay Ranch with AAU teams and academic commitments. But Dartmouth was different.

“It was way out of my league,” Quinones said of her early classwork.

During her first winter at Dartmouth, Quinones wasn’t playing much. The work was hard. In tears, she called her mother, telling her she needed her. Frances had been reading about the pressures on athletes after a high-profile suicide by a runner at Penn.


Frances got on a plane.

“To this day, I don’t have a reason why she needed me,” Frances said. “To be an athlete and an Ivy Leaguer is not easy.”

Reigning WNBA MVP A’Ja Wilson finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds to help spearhead at U.S. comeback in an 86-69 win over Japan.

July 30, 2021

Things got better. Quinones found her passion — engineering — after a class project involved designing a cardboard chair that could support a person. And on the court, her talent was undeniable, a big center with guard skills and smooth jumper. A six-inch growth spurt one summer gave her guard skills with a center’s limbs.

By her senior year at Dartmouth, she was averaging 14 points a game. Isalys was able to surprise her mom with a visit before Frances’ successful surgery to treat breast cancer.

“Isalys has had so much pressure on her and she has been able to just balance it and come out to be at the Olympic level,” Frances said. “You know, I don’t think many people have that kind of stress and survive it.”

She graduated and then stayed another year to further study environmental engineering.

While that was happening, Frances, who was born in Puerto Rico and served in the U.S. military before retiring, called and found out what Isalys needed to do to play for the island’s national team. Isalys flew down for a tryout, made the team and, eventually after Puerto Rico qualified at a FIBA tournament in February 2020, she was headed to Tokyo.

Except the COVID-19 pandemic put that on hold.

Working remotely for QNOPY, Quinones went about trying to train for the Olympics from Chula Vista, where the parks and gyms were all closed. Before her mother could find proper weights, Isalys did strength workouts with water jugs.

She turned the living room into a fitness studio, doing on-demand Beachbody workouts. For basketball, she got a hoop at a sporting goods store and rolled it around a small space in her back yard. To make up for the sliver of makeshift court space, Quinones would move the hoop to change angles and directions.

The worksheets she used to organize those at-home workouts — the strength, the skill and the conditioning — are still in the living room.

“That was all her,” Frances said.

She timed her workouts around her work schedule — everything was being done remotely.

Puerto Rico plays for the final time these Olympics on Monday night. The real world waits, those work emails need to be answered.

For now, the plan is to keep playing basketball. Quinones has signed to play in France, heading there later this month. She also wants to keep working with QNOPY, balancing basketball and engineering with expert precision.

Why choose when you don’t have to?