‘I had no idea she was even coming:’ Elena Ybarra’s journey to Quinnipiac wasn’t without its hiccups

Brendan Samson, Staff Writer

For most 18-year-olds, college is the final step before the real world starts. It is a stretch of time when you can feel independent but are protected by the university from the outside world.

Going outside of your home state can seem daunting, but for senior and captain of the Quinnipiac women’s golf team Elena Ybarra, a drive across states would have felt like a visit to her next door neighbor’s house.

Ybarra’s journey is unlike most. After standing out as a high school golfer in her home of Madrid, Spain, Ybarra began to talk to recruiting companies whose jobs were to connect international students with American universities.

Senior golfer Elena Ybarra averaged an 80.5 per round in her last full year of play. (Courtesy of QU Athletics)

The companies are usually contacted by families, and they match up the top overseas athletes with coaches who then conduct interviews with the prospective athletes. As Elena’s parents, Borja Ybarra and Cecilia Navarrete recall, the interview with Quinnipiac golf coach John O’Connor made up Ybarra’s mind.

“She was very lucky because she really contacted a very nice coach there in Quinnipiac, and he encouraged her to go there,” Navarrete said. “I think we were courageous that it would go well, and it really has been very well.”

Once Ybarra decided on Quinnipiac, a place that she had never visited, her next step in her journey had begun. In early August of 2017, she packed her bags and headed to Hamden, Connecticut, for international student orientation but not without overcoming one more challenge.

Before Quinnipiac, Ybarra had made two trips to the states, once at age 14 to Hilton Head, South Carolina, home of the Professional Golfer’s Association’s Royal Bank of Canada Heritage tournament and once to Orlando, Florida, at age 16.

In both of these cases, she was met with a driver and a sign welcoming her and guiding her to the hotel. When she arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport on her way to Quinnipiac, she did not have that luxury.

“It was a typical airport shuttle that they booked for you, so they just booked that for me, and obviously I didn’t check the email,” Ybarra said. “I was looking for a shuttle university related, that wasn’t what was happening, so I was a bit confused with everything.”

The confusion that Ybarra felt turned out to be just the beginning as she was not even enrolled in the school when she arrived.

“When I got the email from her a week before classes saying, ‘I’m at JFK, where do I go?’ I had no idea that she was even coming,” O’Connor said.

Ybarra was far from detail-oriented when she arrived at Quinnipiac, O’Connor said. She just went with the flow.

She had a golf bag, a suitcase and no other information. Being from Spain, her phone chip was rendered useless, and she had to communicate through email with everybody at the school.

Fortunately, Abby Chase, another golfer at Quinnipiac who graduated in 2019, was also a Residential Assistant and helped sign Ybarra up for classes, find a dorm room and get all of the essentials for the college life at Target.

Now, however, details are of the utmost importance to Ybarra. When prompted with the question, “what is Elena’s best part of her golf game,” the answer was simple for her coach, family and herself — her short game.

The short game features chipping around the green and out of bunkers. While many golfers just try to put the ball close to the pin for a smooth up-and-down, Ybarra is more of a prime Phil Mickelson, trying to dunk it in the cup.

Ybarra’s detail-oriented mentality has even culminated in friendly competition between her and O’Connor.

“Sometimes after tournaments or on some trips we just practice around, and then once we stop doing serious stuff, we chip around the green, but he likes it because I use all of my irons,” Ybarra said. “Some players only use a wedge and that’s fine, but I like to use all my irons, like I could chip with a seven iron. So we always like to do small competitions.”

This unique way of chipping has not always been in Ybarra’s golf bag. She learned it at the camp she attended in Orlando. For her, it is a way to stay controlled. Instead of changing her swing to account for distance, she can simply club up and keep the same smooth swing.

This season will mark Ybarra’s second year as the captain of the golf team. Last season, which was cut short by COVID-19, the team looked like it had its best chance in a long time to secure the MAAC. Ybarra and fellow captain Queenie Lai set up a one-two punch that was devastating for opposing schools.

At the start of this year, Lai transferred, leaving Ybarra as the lone senior on the team.

“I’ve been here two months as the only senior,” Ybarra said. “It was a bit different when I was back home. It’s been good so far, I’m very close with my juniors too, and one of them is also a captain with me, so communication with us has been good. But I tried to set the same example and kind of transmit to lower classmen what I’ve learned from the past.”

This lead-by-example mentality is what makes Ybarra such a great captain in the eyes of her coaches.

“It’s obvious people look up to her,” Quinnipiac golf head coach John O’Connor said. (Courtesy of QU Athletics)

“Well, it’s obvious people look up to her,” O’Connor said. “I mean, she’s got the most experience, she’s the most familiar with how things happen. She’s competed in a lot of tournaments, and she’s very confident, having lived through three years of competition. Being confident as a team leader is critical, and she does a good job of being confident, she sets a good example for the kids and they know they can look up to her.”

Ybarra spent the fall semester at home in Spain, but both her and her family saw the academic, social and athletic advantages in a return to Quinnipiac this spring.

“She really needed to be with her team, and she needed to compete,” Navarrete said. “She needed to finish the year … with a feeling that she has done something there, not here.”

After Quinnipiac, Ybarra is planning to attend a business school in France, while continuing to compete in social golf tournaments with her family in Spain. Golf will always be a big part of her life, since her mother, brother and father golfed their entire lives. She credits them for where golf has taken her thus far.

“I would say my family and my dad, especially he’s been playing all of his life, and it’s a sport he taught my brother and I since I was probably like 5 years old,” Ybarra said. “So it’s been in the family, and we’ve been playing since we were very young.”

Now as a senior, Ybarra and the team have their eyes on the MAAC championship, and as Ybarra and O’Connor see it, their chances are high.

“We’ve had really good teams in the past and the reason we haven’t won conference is not because they were better than us, we just didn’t play good, and that’s a fact,” Ybarra said.