From Harrowing To New Heights Cornell Men's Tennis Making History Just 29 months After Near Tragedy

ITHACA, N.Y. — Like Rome, intercollegiate athletic programs are not built in a day. Coaches spend countless hours scouring the globe for recruits that best fit academic and athletic models. Beyond a support staff of hundreds in the athletic department, there’s a certain autonomy. The management of those finer details is what makes each program unique. Yet for all of the precision that goes into those efforts, sometimes the longest-lasting effects come from something completely out of the blue.

For the Cornell men’s tennis program, the events of Nov. 30, 2014 certainly fit that bill. It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and four teammates hailing from the Mid-Atlantic region were driving from home back to campus. Heading north on Route 13 about a half-hour away from Ithaca, the driver hit a deer, swerved into incoming traffic and was struck by another car.

When asked about the accident, Silviu Tanasoiu took a deep breath before finding the words. It’s a time of so much excitement for a program he’s molded over six years as the Director of Intercollegiate Tennis and the Savitt-Weiss Head Coach of Men’s Tennis, so it’s an enormous emotional leap back to those winter months that were very nearly darker and colder. He recalls going to the Chemung County Sheriff’s Office and taking a picture of what remained of the car.

“I’ve looked at that picture for months and months,” Tanasoiu said. “I couldn’t believe that human beings came out alive from that incident.”

Silviu Tanasoiu has led Cornell men's tennis to an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament for the first time.

All four, in fact, came out alive. Among them was Chris Vrabel, then a sophomore and now part of a senior group integral to the Big Red’s first-ever at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, where it will take on Rice at 10 a.m. CDT Friday. Vrabel was a back-seat passenger and asleep at the time of initial impact, the swerving and immediate aftermath were surreal.

“The few minutes after it, I was kind of in a daze. I think I hit my head, so I don’t think I was thinking clearly. It was almost like it was just a dream, and that it didn’t really happen.”

While he doesn’t remember it, he had managed to pry himself out of the car and sat on the side of the road before help arrived. After receiving some stitches and staples, he was released from the hospital within hours. The driver, Quoc-Daniel Nguyen ’15, was also released from the hospital the next morning, but their two teammates were in critical condition.

The outpouring of support came from all angles, with Tanasoiu lauding the response of alumni and the daily visits made to the hospital by Andy Noel, the Meakem*Smith Director of Athletics and Physical Education. Alex Sidney ’15 was first to emerge from his coma two days later, but it would be two weeks before Jason Luu ’15 would do the same. Just two days after the accident, Vrabel was back in class and preparing for upcoming finals. But the gravity of what happened started to set in as Luu remained in a coma.

“I realized how bad a condition he was in, but then he was out of the hospital by the end of the month,” he said. “So after that, I was feeling better about it. He lived only 15 minutes from me (in Virginia) and we were back home for winter break. It was good that I got to visit him and start the next season with a clear mind.”

From top, Alex Sidney '15, Quoc-Daniel Nguyen '15 and Jason Luu '15

Remarkably, everyone made a full recovery. Luu, Nguyen and Sidney all graduated on time. Vrabel is on pace to do the same later this month, with a degree in computer science from the College of Engineering. He will move to Seattle and work as a software engineer for Amazon.

Returning to school after being able to visit Luu, Vrabel began a terrific spring season. He earned a spot on the All-Ivy League second team in doubles and ended the year on a 16-match winning streak in singles — including a perfect 7-0 mark in Ivy League play. He then took his game to new heights this fall, when he won the singles competition at the USTA/ITA Northeast Regional Championships. Grouped among the event’s 17 through 32 seeds, Vrabel rolled to six straight victories without dropping a single set.

“I would say it all culminated in the fall with him winning the regional championship in a fairly dominating fashion,” Tanasoiu said. “He’s gotten better every single year. We knew from the recruiting process that he’s extremely gifted. We knew that as long as he was invested and that he was willing to do the work that he could do remarkable things. You can see it.”

Chris Vrabel was the singles champion of the 2016 USTA/ITA Northeast Regional tournament in the fall.

The success has continued into a memorable dual season for the Big Red, which enters the NCAA tournament this weekend as the nation’s 26th-ranked team with a sparkling 21-3 record. The team won its final six matches of the regular season to earn a share of the program’s second Ivy League championship.

A season with this much success can be attributed to a host of things, with a strong senior class being among the most obvious. Within that group is Vrabel, who has become one of the team’s most consistent contributors. The perspective gained from surviving that car crash has played a role.

“Looking back, I can really see that any day one thing can happen and completely change your entire life,” Vrabel said. “If any of us hadn’t been wearing our seat belts, it could have been a lot worse. I realize how lucky we all are to just be here. I’m just thankful for every day.”

The Cornell Men's Tennis Class of 2017 — from left, Chris Vrabel, Colin Sinclair, Isaiah Brilhante, Dylan Brown and Bernardo Casares Rosa.

Tanasoiu says that attitude shines through.

“I think you can sense through his actions that there’s a powerful sense of gratitude there and just the joy of life,” he added. “I think he’s matured so much. So many people around him have so much respect for how he reacted to the tragedy. Ultimately, he’s become one of the leaders of the team. He’s a silent leader, but he’s certainly a leader.”

Tennis is largely an individual sport, with most competition on junior and professional circuits featuring traditional singles or doubles divisions. The format is something that makes NCAA tennis unique — in addition to getting higher education and facing quality competition, student-athletes are part of a team. It’s also a global sport. Look down Cornell’s current roster of 16 and you find hometowns from Ecuador, Russia, Peru, England, Canada and Australia. Tanasoiu hails from Romania; assistant coach Bruno Santarelli is from Brazil. While a certain degree of unity comes naturally through the game they love and the daily routine of training and competing in matches, the aftermath of that car crash galvanized the familial ties of the program in a way that would be otherwise unachievable.

“It was about as tragic an event as you can imagine — having 19-year-old kids fighting a life-and-death battle,” Tanasoiu said. “It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and I think it reshaped our entire perspective in life and being grateful for what we have. It certainly brought the entire team together. It created a connection and a bond that I hope will last forever.”

Cornell Men's Tennis won a share of the program's second Ivy League championship in April.

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