Track & Field/Cross Country

Always Light on the Other Side: UTSA Track & Field’s Marissa and Melody Espinoza

by Sean Cartell

SAN ANTONIO – Marissa and Melody Espinoza, twin freshmen on the UTSA track & field and cross country teams, are natives of San Antonio, but the journey that they have both endured on their path to campus was longer and more challenging than most college students could ever imagine. 

The two survived the death of their mother and years of abuse from those who were supposed to protect them, before running away from their situation and finding a mentor who changed their life. 

Marissa and Melody embraced running as their vehicle to escape their difficult situation and, following standout prep careers at Brackenridge High School, joined the Roadrunners in the fall of 2023. Their story of perseverance has earned them the Joey Longoria Inspiration Award, to be presented on Sunday at UTSA Athletics’ annual Rowdy Awards. 

“I honestly hope from our story that people can see that it’s always brighter on the other side and, no matter what you’re going through, you can get through it if you put your mind to it,” Marissa said. “I feel like you deserve the life that you’re living when you make it the best that you can. Even though things may not always fall into place, we can always do the best to get through them.” 

* * *

Marissa and Melody Espinoza were 15 when their mother passed away. The three of them lived in an apartment with the twins’ stepfather and two younger half-siblings, and were just about to move into a new apartment when their mother passed away after battling cancer. 

“When she passed away, it was so sudden,” Melody said. “We did not expect it at all. She always had sicknesses, but we never knew that she was going to pass away so soon. During that time, when she passed away, it was during COVID, so we were already going through a lot of life changes. It was a major set-back for us – mentally, physically and financially.” 

Marissa and Melody initially moved in with their stepfather and his mother, along with their half-siblings. Their stepfather then moved into a home of his own and they moved once again. 

“From the time we lost my mom up until we left, it was just abusive in many ways,” Marissa said. “It was hard to sit there and go through that and be treated like that.” 

Once their mother passed away, neither Espinoza sister ever expected to attend college, much less as a student-athlete. They just hoped to survive their home life, graduate high school and get as far away from home as possible.  

“My only goal was to graduate high school,” Melody said. “I didn’t mind if I passed a class with a C, I was just trying to get through high school. But we met some really amazing people that helped us grow into better people.” 

* * *

Marissa Espinoza was initially suspicious of her high school biology teacher, Cassandra Mironczuk. Mironczuk taught her classes with a great deal of positivity and took an interest in all of her students. It was not something Marissa had experienced before. 

“I met her my freshman year and I did not grow a close bond with her at first,” Marissa said. “I actually had a lot of resentment towards her class. From the home I grew up in, I didn’t see people acting like that. I definitely thought there was something fishy going on when somebody was nice to me. I was just so closed off with accepting people giving love to me.” 

Melody got introduced to Mironczuk in a different way and it would end up being a relationship that would change both sisters’ lives. 

“I joined the track team and she was the distance coach,” Melody said. “I said ‘Oh, you’re my sister’s teacher,’ and that’s how I grew a close bond with her. Eventually my sister joined track because I let her know that Cassandra was a really good person. She was our coach and then turned into our mentor when we would go to her with home problems.” 

Eventually, Marissa and Melody decided to escape their abusive environment, but it wasn’t an easy decision. They left their stepfather and went to live with their great-grandmother Frances Martinez on the outskirts of San Antonio. 

“We knew that we wanted to leave right after high school, but we just didn’t expect to do it on our own,” Marissa said. “Until one day, we just got so tired of everything mentally and physically. When we decided to leave my stepdad’s house, Melody didn’t want to leave, I think because she was scared. I had to be the one to tell her, ‘No, sissy, come on. Things are going to be better. We have to escape this because, if we don’t do this now, we’re just going to be here long-term and we don’t know what’s going to happen.’

“Cassandra told us she would be here with us every step of the way with whatever we decided to do,” Marissa continued. “She didn’t push us to do anything, but she did give us that reassurance. That process was hard because my stepdad told us everything would be better if we did come back home, but we had to tell ourselves that people like him do not change.” 

Along with the move away from that difficult environment, the Espinozas began taking track more seriously. With it, came a growth in their confidence and the beginning of a path for their future. 

“Our freshman year [of high school], we kind of used track as a get-away,” Melody said. “It was definitely an escape from home. COVID came around and then we didn’t really take it seriously. But once we moved out of our stepdad’s house, we used running as a coping mechanism. We became more committed to it in our junior year.” 

* * *

As their track careers grew, so too did their relationship with their coach. 

Melody had started staying with Mironczuk and her now-husband LJ Battle on occasion. One day at lunch, Marissa looked over and was surprised at what she saw. 

“I remember one time she came to school with lunch made from [Cassandra],” Marissa said. “And I looked at her like ‘What is this?’ And she was like ‘Oh, she made me lunch.’ And I had never experienced that in my life. I didn’t see that as a kind gesture. I had never had somebody make me lunch my whole life. There was finally a realization to know that Cassandra was a good person and she was just there to help us. That’s when I started staying there a while as well.” 

Eventually, the sisters would move in permanently with Mironczuk and Battle, both smiling when recounting getting their own room for the first time in their lives. What they also experienced for the first time was a healthy adult relationship. 

“When we moved in with them, it was so different,” Melody said. “Their love was different. How they spoke to each other was different. The things that we thought were normal weren’t exactly normal. It was definitely an eye-opener.

“We learned that our feelings are valid and, growing up, we didn’t think that our feelings were ever valid,” Melody continued. “We thought it was the adults who were right. They really helped us learn that our feelings are valid and we can sit and talk about them however long we need to in order to get through it.” 

The behavior that Marissa and Melody saw modeled by Mironczuk and Battle began to help them relate to others in a variety of situations in their life. 

“Me and my sister were not the best in high school,” Melody said. “We didn’t hang out with the right people. When things didn’t go right, we would react really aggressively. We eventually learned how to go through those things and learned how to talk out our feelings. It’s better that we actually get to talk things out. Together, I think our relationship has grown so much. It’s good to see that we can love each other way better and talk through different scenarios as sisters. We go through similar things; it’s good to know that someone else is feeling what I’m feeling.” 

Mironczuk and Battle would eventually adopt the sisters and officially become their parents, providing them the family and home they hadn’t previously experienced in their lives. 

“The home that I grew up in was something that nobody should experience,” Marissa said. “I feel like my adoptive parents definitely have changed me for the better. The love and the care that I got from them was really hard to accept at first. When you grow up for 15 to 16 years being abused in so many ways, it was just really hard to accept that people do have lives and they do care and love their children. That is what I’ve experienced since then.” 

* * *

A change in Marissa and Melody’s environment helped their vision for the future become clearer. 

Both were exceptional athletes at Brackenridge High School who etched their names in the all-time record books. Marissa holds the school record in the 1,600 meters and Melody the school record in the 3,200 meters. As seniors in cross country, Melody won the district title and Marissa finished second. 

They knew they had the talent to be NCAA Division I student-athletes, but they still wanted to leave San Antonio as a way to put their pasts behind them. 

“We wanted to go to a Division I school because we did feel like that’s where our talent was at,” Marissa said. “We wanted to start a new life. We wanted to leave San Antonio to escape our problems, but throughout the process of picking a college, our adoptive parents did remind us that we shouldn’t want to leave San Antonio just to get away from our problems, we should want to grow through them. If we still saw ourselves leaving, then go ahead, but don’t let our problems be the reason we leave San Antonio.” 

During the recruitment process, Marissa had been communicating with David Hartman, UTSA’s long-time distance coach and was interested in attending her hometown school. She scheduled a visit with the program, but Melody was unsure. The night before Marissa was to make her visit to UTSA, Melody agreed to join her on the visit. 

“I reached out to Coach Hartman and he told me that I was able to come on a visit with my sister,” Marissa said. “I honestly loved the campus. Everything about RACE I loved. Coach Hartman seemed like a good person and he is a good person. It was very last-minute that we decided to stay in San Antonio.” 

* * *

Their freshman year at UTSA is coming to a close for Marissa and Melody Espinoza. Both are majoring in psychology within the College for Health, Community and Policy. 

It has already been an experience that has benefitted the duo in a number of positive ways. 
“My time here at UTSA has been quite amazing,” Melody said. “I’m very blessed for how this first year is going. I didn’t expect to receive such love and support from coaches and teammates that I have. I actually talked to a sports psychologist and that is really nice. The resources that UTSA has provided for us have been amazing. Going through this first year of college being a student-athlete, I definitely underestimated it, but having the right support, resources and people, it definitely makes it a bit easier.” 

Both credit, more than anything, the people within the UTSA family for enhancing their student-athlete experience and their lives. 

“I have grown close with a lot of the girls on the team and a couple who I now call my best friends,” Marissa said. “I’m glad I met them because of coming here. Every athlete goes through so many things; your season doesn’t always go right. When you have the right people around you, it makes things so much easier. Coach Hartman has also taught me to be tougher. He has definitely pushed me to be better as an athlete and as a person. I’m very thankful that I have the coach that I do.” 

Though the path that led them to UTSA included an abusive childhood and countless negative experiences, their resilience in making a better life for themselves will serve as an inspiration to countless others. 

“I hope when people hear my story they learn that whatever situation that you're in, that you’re able to get out of it,” Melody said. “I know it might seem impossible, but it’s definitely possible. There are people out in the world who have so much love that they want to give. It might be hard to accept it, but that’s the only thing you can do to heal yourself and heal your trauma. Life is challenging, but you will get through it. There is always light on the other side.”