A Lasting Impact

by Alexis Christie

Change is never easy, and no one knows that better than Irina Cantos. After growing up in Germany, Belgium and Spain, she arrived at Ohio State in 2019 and was eager to begin her collegiate tennis career.

“We don’t have this kind of thing in Europe,” Cantos explained. “You had to choose between your sport and studies.” She decided to not start a professional career at that time, instead deciding to pursue play at the college level.

However, the transition from Europe to a midwestern city in the United States was major. Not only was the move a big shock culturally, but it also separated her from her family thanks to both distance and time. She would now be living over 4,000 miles from home and the time difference meant that she was very limited as to when she could be in touch with her parents and siblings.

“Most people go home for a weekend if they get homesick,” Cantos said, noting that wasn’t exactly possible for her. “Fortunately, Columbus has become my home. It became my home within the first semester.”

In fact, for Cantos, there was a comfort level to Ohio State that she felt even before she officially made the move. The ‘instant click’ she felt on her first visit drew her to choose Columbus for her college career and it has paid off in more ways than one.

From coaches who have her back to teammates she has bonded with throughout her time as a Buckeye, Cantos has felt the support she needed to grow into a confident and determined individual.

“I wouldn’t change a thing. A lot has happened in the last three-plus years for me,” Cantos said. “I feel like I have grown immensely as a person. I’m not even close to the person I was freshman year.”

This new-found confidence served her well both on and off the court. She has been part of Big Ten championships and seen tremendous success as a singles player over her career, including receiving All-American and 2023 Big Ten Player of the Year accolades. Additionally, through the Bucks Go Pro 2.0 internship program, she had the opportunity to put her academic success to work at Serif Creative. The company works with clients like Nationwide and Homage to create content and campaigns that will clearly communicate those brands’ messages and voice.

“I wouldn’t change a thing. I feel like I have grown immensely as a person. I’m not even close to the person I was freshman year.”

While her title was marketing intern, Cantos was involved with the production elements that were a part of building that branded content. Whether she was helping set up lighting for photo shoots or assisting on the set of videos that would promote Serif’s clients, she was able to gain experience very quickly and with many different aspects of media production.

One of those shoots was with Aunt Flow, a personal care company that strives to provide safe and affordable period products to those who may not otherwise have easy access to them.

“Our goal at Aunt Flow is to make the world better for people with periods,” Sarah Howard, the marketing director for the brand, said. Since products like tampons and pads are such a necessity, “having access really helps create a level playing field for students from different financial backgrounds and economic status.”

For Cantos, this message really hit home, and she immediately wanted to be involved. At the shoot, she had the opportunity to meet Claire Coder, the founder and CEO of the company. She was ‘blown away’ by Coder’s excitement about Aunt Flow’s mission and felt instantly energized to get in on their efforts.

“When production ended that first day, we had a 12-hour day, and the first thing I did when I got home was call my coach and tell her, ‘We need to do this,’” Cantos said. After hearing about Aunt Flow’s initiatives to put free period product dispensers in the bathrooms of schools and athletic facilities across the country, Cantos knew it was something that could really help Ohio State student-athletes.

According to Howard, Cantos’ drive and determination were key factors in seeing the project through to fruition.

“She was brave enough to have the conversation …[and] to ask for something that she wanted and needed. That just went a huge way in getting it accomplished.”

Melissa Schaub, head coach of the Buckeye women’s tennis program, echoed this sentiment, saying that an initiative like this “just needed a voice like Irina’s to be confident enough to take that forward, stand by it and really put a lot of thought and a lot of effort in.” When Cantos set her mind to filling the gap in Ohio State’s facilities, “it was the right person at the right time.”

For Cantos, it seemed like a no-brainer and something that should have been in the works much earlier.

“It’s ingrained in our society that it’s something that shouldn’t be talked about and should be dealt with in secret,” she described of how the topic of period products is usually approached. However, she noted, “it is the most natural thing in the entire world.”

Adding to this, Howard explained that “it goes back to education. A lot of times, it’s perceived as a girl’s issue or a women’s issue and not a holistic health issue.” Aunt Flow aims to change that narrative, because “the more we are open to having those conversations, we notice that the stigma goes away, and people feel comfortable talking about it.”

Cantos got right to business, drafting emails to Ohio State athletics administrators with the help of her coach and having meetings with members of the athletics department to explain the need for this initiative. Throughout the entire process, there was never a moment where she questioned whether this was the right path.

While there was some early pushback surrounding budget and necessity, Cantos never lost sight of the main reason behind her initial interest in Aunt Flow. At one point, she thought about the disparity between the team being provided with all the uniforms, apparel and shoes they needed to perform on the court, but not a product they really needed behind the scenes.

“I don’t want more shoes,” she said. “I just want this basic need I feel like we deserve to have.”

Finally, the day came when the logistics had been sorted and the money had been found; machines were installed in athletic facility bathrooms and locker rooms to provide athletes with free tampons and pads. Cantos was ecstatic.

“I don’t want more shoes. I just want this basic need I feel like we deserve to have."

“I was buying Halloween costumes with my teammates, and I just stopped in my tracks at the mall and I like, ‘Guys, this is happening,’” Cantos recalled of the moment she got the approval email.

While she put in a great deal of work as an individual, Cantos also gave credit to her teammates and coaches. She described feeling like they were behind her every step of the way, listening to her updates about the process, supporting her in any way they could and celebrating with her when the process ended in success.

Still, she feels a great sense of pride when she hears athletes mention the dispensers around the Schumaker Complex. When the installation first happened, “I wasn’t really parading that I did it, but people would talk about it and I would hear it and think that was so cool,” Cantos said. Knowing the impact she had on her fellow athletes is something that still never fails to put a smile on her face.

Moving forward, she was contacted by a campus student organization about the potential of implementing the dispensers across all of Ohio State as opposed to just around the athletic district. In response to their contact, she said, “if I can do anything to accelerate the process, that would be the biggest thing for me.”

Beyond that, Cantos is excited about what this type of work means for her future beyond her college career. While she’s hoping tennis will be a big part of that, her work with both Aunt Flow and Serif have opened her eyes to what else is out there.

“I didn’t feel super connected to my minor, but after that internship, it was immediate,” Cantos said, referring to the media production side of her work and the chance to get the word out about different brands and organizations. “It’s kind of driven me to think of pursuing different things and it’s added a door in my life.”

While she may not be ready to open that door full-time quite yet, she has certainly opened one for many student-athletes that make their way through the Schumaker and other Ohio State athletic facilities every day.

For more on Cantos and her relationship with Aunt Flow, read her guest blog HERE.