Billiards started out as a way for Stacey-Ann Rubio to relieve stress. In between classes as a freshman, she would go to the Porter Davis Game Room with friends and shoot some pool.
“We were regulars in the game room,” she says. “All of us would pitch in for a table and we’d spend hours playing.”
Before long, what began as a casual hobby turned into competition.
She heard about a billiards tournament that the Game Room was hosting and signed up. Little did she know that she was actually taking part in a tryout of sorts to be part of a group of billiards and table tennis players that represents FIU in regional and national competitions hosted by the Association of College Unions International (ACUI).
After an impressive performance, she was brought on board and has been competing in ACUI tournaments ever since. Now a senior, she has qualified for three national tournaments, finishing seventh in the 2014 Collegiate 9-Ball Championships. This year, she hopes to finish even higher.
At the regional tournament held at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. on Feb. 28 and March 1, Rubio lost the first match in the double-elimination tournament, but won five straight matches to secure a first-place finish and a spot in the national tournament in June.
“This year I want to do better, not just for myself but for all the people who support me,” says Rubio, a criminal justice and psychology double major. “I love to represent my school well and that also drives me.”
On the table tennis side, Gino Bernasconi finished second at the 2014 Collegiate Table Tennis Championships held at Virginia Tech last June. In the doubles portion of the tournament, Bernasconi and Marcos Garcia finished in third place.
In late January, Bernasconi and Garcia helped FIU win the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association (NCTTA) South Florida division tournament over local rivals like the University of Miami.
This year, the Game Room estimates that they will be sending seven competitors to the ACUI national championships – four in table tennis and three in billiards – in June.
Garcia became enamored with table tennis years ago while working at a hotel in Mexico, where he was tasked with arranging activities for guests. One of the more popular activities among the hotel patrons included the table tennis tournaments he would organize – and often compete in himself.
“I would challenge them to games and give them a free shirt if they beat me,” Garcia joked. “It’s a very rewarding sport. It’s very engaging and you make a special connection with your opponents. There’s a mutual respect for each other.”
He came to Miami to work on the production crew for a Spanish-language television show, but after wanting to change career paths chose to come to FIU to study international relations. As he was walking through the GC Pit as a freshman in 2012, he saw some ping pong tables set up and found out there was a tournament the next day.
Garcia competed, finished second and – like Rubio – was invited to compete for FIU.
For both Garcia and Rubio, the Game Room provides both an opportunity to compete in a sport they love and build relationships with other students and players.
“The Game Room changed my life. It gave me the chance to meet people and I wouldn’t have met,” Garcia says.
Rubio adds, “The game room is a hidden treasure, especially because of the people there. I could go and be surrounded by a lot of positivity, and that brings you up.”
Even though the team is not an official club or student group, the Graham Center has been committed to helping students compete in regionals and, if they qualify, go to nationals.
Graham Center Senior Director Sanyo Mathew, who used to participate in ACUI tournaments as a table tennis player when he was a student at Southern Illinois University, has been a supporter of the group for years, traveling with the team to its competitions and serving as an advisor and mentor for the group.
“We have so much talent here and we believe this experience is priceless and invaluable,” Mathew says. “It’s a great opportunity to get our students on a regional and national stage to compete and represent our university.”
To find out more about the Porter Davis Game Room and the ACUI team, visit their page on the Graham Center’s website.