When Nick Cugini obtained a Facebook pal request from Stacey Chen, he was intrigued, and a little bit amused.
The two, who had been then youngsters, had met for the primary time on the Tournament of Champions, a top-tier debate competitors for highschool college students at Northwestern University. Mr. Cugini, now 30, was a relative newcomer to the nationwide debate scene and had been nervous.
“I was probably a bit shy and antisocial; I mostly hung out with people that I already knew,” he recalled of that day in early May 2008. “Stacey and I didn’t converse that much. So it was kind of funny when she added me on Facebook, because really, we’d only exchanged a few words!”
Still, whereas temporary, his impression had been a superb one. “I thought she was pretty cool — she knew everybody.”
Ms. Chen’s first impression of him was of a formidable competitor.
“He beat me that year!” mentioned Ms. Chen, 29. “I thought he seemed really smart and articulate, like the kind of person I wanted to be my friend.”
The two stood out among the many debate elite in different methods, too. Mr. Cugini, who’s a director of buyer success and onboarding at Braze, a advertising expertise firm in San Francisco, makes use of a mobility scooter as a result of he has cerebral palsy. Ms. Chen, who’s an affiliate principal and California workplace lead at Redstone Strategy Group, a philanthropy and social affect consulting agency, was one of many few feminine rivals.
“There weren’t a lot of small, Asian women on the circuit at that time,” she mentioned.
They started messaging forwards and backwards on Facebook, discussing the ins and outs of debate and the looming school utility course of. As they continued operating into one another at tournaments, a friendship started to kind. It was solidified when each determined to attend Yale, partly due to the school’s extremely aggressive debate staff.
“I think I more or less said to him, ‘OK great, we’re going to be best friends, then,’” Ms. Chen mentioned.
Mr. Cugini grew up in Houston, surrounded by a big, tight-knit household. His father, Rob Cugini, a logistics supervisor for Chevron, lives there nonetheless. His mom, Eve Cugini, the director of well being and nicely being at Atrium Health, now lives in Charlotte, N.C.
“He’s always been sweet, kind and very bright,” mentioned Ms. Cugini. “We didn’t know he was going to be born with a incapacity. And once we realized it, we simply shifted gears and mentioned, ‘OK, whatever his dreams are, whatever he wants to accomplish, we are going to make that happen.”
Mr. Cugini consistently had a close group of friends, and loved reading science fiction books and playing video games. He was a dedicated fan of Houston sports teams, excelled in school and developed an interest in politics from a young age.
“I’d comply with the information, and I’d choose debates with my dad, who’s extra conservative,” he mentioned. “Now, I realize that talking about politics at every dinner was probably kind of annoying, but I was having fun.”
A style for sparring led him to highschool debate. “It became a competitive outlet for me,” he mentioned. Debate additionally opened him as much as the opportunity of going to school farther away from residence.
He utilized to Yale early admission, was deferred, and was subsequently accepted there and to Harvard. Ms. Chen inspired him to decide on New Haven, Conn.
Ms. Chen was not one to equivocate when pursuing her targets, from tutorial pursuits to excessive mountain climbing. Born prematurely at 32 weeks, she nonetheless “came out kicking and screaming,” mentioned her mom, Lucy Chen. “She’s always been very strong-willed and independent.”
Stacey Chen grew up the center of three kids within the Pittsburgh suburbs; her mom was then a stay-at-home guardian (she’s now the assistant basic supervisor on the Hampton Inn Wexford/Sewickley in Pennsylvania) and her father, Dr. William Chen, was an anesthesiologist (he’s retired and lives in Lisbon). She thrived academically, studying voraciously and taking part in the piano. In highschool, she was invited to attend a debate staff apply, after which debate grew to become her essential pursuit.
“I’ve always been curious and opinionated; I love learning and exploring and talking to folks,” she mentioned. “Debate was the perfect combination of a social outlet and my academic interests.”
The mates reconnected at Bulldog Days, Yale’s on-campus occasion for admitted college students, within the spring of 2009.
“I just remember Stacey saying, ‘You can’t go to Harvard, that would be a big mistake,” recalled Mr. Cugini’s mom, who had accompanied him to go to faculties. “I knew that Stacey was going to watch out for him. She’s a take-no-prisoners kind of girl. It was comforting to me.”
The two joined Yale’s debate staff. Now, as teammates, they obtained to expertise what it was wish to work collectively, as a substitute of as rivals. They additionally spent copious quantities of time with one another; throughout lengthy automotive rides touring to debate tournaments on weekends, finding out and simply hanging out. As they grew nearer, it grew to become clear to them, and to their mates, that there was a little bit one thing extra occurring.
“There would be this tone shift in Nick’s voice when he would talk to Stacey,” mentioned Robert Colonel, a pal from Yale’s debate staff and Ms. Chen’s roommate. “Stacey, meanwhile, in the midst of debate tournaments and studying and so on, would manage to make time to hang out with Nick.”
Seeing Mr. Cugini in his factor, whereas tackling the challenges of faculty collectively, actually triggered Ms. Chen’s admiration for him to deepen.
“I remember thinking, ‘Dang, I just really want to spend a bunch of time with this person,’” she mentioned.
Feelings continued escalating till late fall of their freshman yr, they shared a kiss in Nick’s dorm room. But Ms. Chen rapidly backed off. She didn’t wish to run this danger of spoiling their friendship. She additionally wished to keep away from the talk circuit rumor mill, and the pitfall of being pigeonholed as a high debater’s girlfriend, somewhat than a competitor in her personal proper.
They distanced themselves, barely, hanging out 4 nights every week as a substitute of six or seven. But upon returning for sophomore yr, their chemistry reignited, resulting in a second kiss. Ms. Chen nonetheless had issues. Mr. Cugini was positively excited by one thing extra, however he wasn’t fazed by her uncertainty. He felt that he was coming into his personal socially, and was tremendous seeing the place issues went. By spring of their sophomore yr, Ms. Chen made it clear that, if he requested her out, this time, she’d say sure.
They saved their relationship considerably beneath wraps for the rest of the college yr, however the shift grew to become clear when Mr. Cugini visited Ms. Chen in Washington a number of instances over the summer season. Their mates had been thrilled for them, and totally unsurprised.
“They have these qualities that just balance each other out, and make each other better,” mentioned Max Dovala, a pal of the couple from Yale’s debate staff. (He can be a co-worker of Ms. Chen’s and their marriage ceremony officiant.)
Their relationship held robust via their remaining years at Yale, whilst Mr. Cugini took a spot yr, working in Houston and finding out in South Carolina. The solely second that known as their dedication into query was when Ms. Chen was supplied a job with Redstone the autumn of her senior yr, beginning in Boulder, Colo., and finally requiring a transfer to the Bay Area in California. This was a pointy shift from plans the couple had beforehand mentioned, which centered on working and residing on the East Coast. Ms. Chen, overwhelmed by the choice she needed to make, instructed Mr. Cugini that she thought they need to break up.
“We broke up on a Wednesday, and then that weekend, I went to a debate tournament,” she mentioned. “It was a common practice to call people for advice between rounds. And he was my person. I spent the entire weekend calling him. When I got home on Sunday night, he called me and said, ‘All right, we’re not breaking up. You should make the professional decisions you need. We’ll figure it out.’”
With Mr. Cugini’s assist, Ms. Chen took the job out West after graduating in 2013. Mr. Cugini, who graduated in December 2014, joined her that subsequent spring.
They settled into life in Palo Alto, Calif. Ms. Chen pursued a newfound love of mountain climbing and the outside together with her attribute verve and Mr. Cugini discovered find out how to prepare dinner. They adopted a rescue cat, Cricket, who grew to become a beloved member of their family. As the 2 made mates and developed unbiased pursuits, they at all times cherished and appreciated the time they spent collectively.
While marriage often got here up, Ms. Chen didn’t see it as a necessity. Mr. Cugini made clear that it was vital to him, however wasn’t in a rush to steer Ms. Chen in any other case. Finally, in the summertime of 2017, Ms. Chen determined it made sense.
“We actually booked our venue before we officially got engaged,” she mentioned. Ms. Chen had seen photographs of a pal’s marriage ceremony on the San Francisco Zoo, and cherished the concept of getting a celebration there. She booked the venue greater than two years earlier than their deliberate April 12, 2020 marriage ceremony. That date, after all, didn’t come to go. As the coronavirus swept the world, San Francisco instituted one of many first shelter-in-place orders within the United States. The two determined to postpone their marriage ceremony, together with a deliberate honeymoon to Australia.
On April 12, 2021, precisely 10 years after they first started courting, Ms. Chen and Mr. Cugini gathered on the San Francisco Zoo, as deliberate, with a bunch of 12 shut family and friends members, all of whom had been vaccinated or had quarantined beforehand. As they confronted one another, in entrance of a panorama of grazing zebras, early night mild glowing behind them, they declared their love and dedication to one another with vows they wrote.
“Ten years later, you still make me feel such joy,” mentioned Mr. Cugini, his voice breaking as he tried to carry again tears. Ms. Chen, luminous in a Casablanca Bridal marriage ceremony robe, reached out with a handkerchief to dab his eyes.
As they exchanged rings and got here collectively for a kiss, cheers erupted from the small crowd. There was no debate that this love would final a lifetime.
On This Day
When April 12, 2021
Where San Francisco Zoo
Better Together Max Dovala, who grew to become an American Marriage Ministries officiant for the occasion, started the nuptials with a wine mixing ceremony, pouring a bottle every of Wild Child Syrah and Quincy, a mix of Tempranillo and Tannat from Texas-based Hawk’s Shadow Winery (owned by household mates of the Cuginis) right into a decanter. The wines had been particularly chosen as a result of their complementary flavors had been higher collectively, “Just like Nick and Stacey,” Mr. Dovala mentioned. The couple toasted throughout the ceremony, and later shared the wine with their friends.
There in Spirit Ms. Chen’s relations weren’t in a position to attend the marriage, as a result of they weren’t in a position to get vaccinated in time. Instead, Ms. Chen and Mr. Cugini left one chair empty on the ceremony, with a spot card for the Chen Family, and posed for photographs with cutouts of her dad and mom and siblings’ faces, mounted on cardboard and hooked up to picket kitchen utensils. Also there in image-form: their beloved cat, Cricket.
A Toast To Love In her vows, Ms. Chen referred to evenings spent making cocktails in her and Mr. Cugini’s house. At the reception, she opted for a Jack Daniels on the rocks, incomes admiration from her mother-in-law, who smilingly referred to her as “a badass.” Mr. Cugini had a gin and tonic.