Athletes abroad: unique challenges and unforgettable opportunities

Darrel Hunter and Joe Hagedorn competed in the Copa de España this fall while they studied abroad in Europe.
Darrel Hunter and Joe Hagedorn competed in the Copa de España while they studied abroad. Photo Courtesy of Darrel Hunter.

As many Swarthmore student-athletes know, when returning from summer and winter breaks, there is a high possibility part of the team will be missing. Each semester, the school sends students all across the world as part of the study abroad program. A good number of these students happen to be athletes.

Before deciding to study abroad, there is a considerable decision to be made on the part of the student-athlete. While a great cultural and academic experience surely awaits them if they choose to travel, it comes with the tradeoff of giving up off-season team activities and practices.

The way of life in other countries can be incredibly different from what we have here in the United States, and especially what we have come to know at Swarthmore. All students must adapt to new languages, foods and local customs. But there is more than that for an athlete.

It can be challenging for athletes to stay on top of their game when their whole world is different. It is so easy to get wrapped up in the new experiences that present themselves: meeting new people, traveling to various countries and trying to soak in the sights, all while balancing the course load of the program.

It is a true testament of passion for those athletes that maintain their athletic lifestyle abroad. On top of these distractions it can also be difficult to find a gym, a field or any sports venue, for that matter, in a foreign city.

But that is one of the unique and interesting aspects of Swarthmore and its athletics’ department. Most coaches leave the decision to study abroad in their players’ hands and some actively encourage it. Most surprisingly, perhaps, is the permission given to some winter athletes to study abroad for a semester. This is especially shocking because the winter sports season overlaps both the fall and spring semester. Inevitably, a winter athlete studying abroad will miss some portion of the season.

Even so, the Swarthmore swim teams saw six of its members choose to study abroad in the fall. This means these athletes missed the entire off-season training program as well as a few early season swim meets.

While head coach Sue Davis knows exactly what it means for her athletes to go abroad, she ultimately leaves the decision to them. Davis says, “To go abroad or not to go abroad is the decision of the individual alone.”

When asked about the challenges studying abroad poses for the coach, Davis didn’t seem overly concerned. “We had 5 women abroad and one man. Any time that people are abroad they are missed.  We have lived through it before and I am sure we will live through it again.”

Even the lack of training her athletes were going to get abroad had no impact on the way Davis went about her business. If the swimmers have a chance to train abroad or at home over break, the team will be better off for it, but either way they will be back in the pool hard at work once they rejoin the team.

Knowing she was going to get a handful of athletes back mid-season was no cause for worry. Davis says, “Getting athletes back mid-season is no different than returning students in the fall.”

With this opportunity put in front of them, swimmers Supriya Davis ’15 and Katie Wiseman ’15 made the decision to study abroad knowing they would miss out on some team activities. Not only are both winter athletes, but each has been formerly named to the All-Centennial Conference First Team.

Wiseman studied in Madrid, Spain with Hamilton College’s Academic Year for the semester, in part to help her complete her requirements for minoring in Spanish. Knowing she was missing out on training with her team, she made the effort to stay in the best shape she could.

Wiseman found a local gym that she tried to visit as much as she could. On the swim front, she did the best she could to try and swim 2,000 to 5,000 meters in a week. Knowing it posed too much of a challenge to keep up with the workouts her teammates were doing back home, Wiseman did enough “to keep a feel for the water.”

When she returned home from Spain, Wiseman met up with her club team to get some added workouts before the always-challenging swim team winter break trip in Puerto Rico. She admits she was initially nervous when rejoining the team on the trip because she didn’t know how her body was going to hold up.

Luckily for Wiseman the work she put in abroad and before the trip proved to be beneficial. “I knew I wasn’t going to be where I normally am in January. It certainly wasn’t easy to jump right back in, but I was able to do more than I thought I would be able to do.”

Much like Wiseman, Davis had a similar experience in balancing the excitement of being abroad with the focus of athletic training. Davis ultimately decided to spend her semester abroad because she viewed it as a must. She said, “I have been swimming my entire life, whereas studying abroad is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Davis spent her semester at University College London. Similar to her teammate, Davis found a local pool and was able to swim for about three hours a week. Upon returning home, she also joined up with her club team to get as much time in the water as possible before Puerto Rico.

The 15 practices in nine days didn’t make returning to swimming very easy, but Davis was able to hold her own. Perhaps the most noteworthy experience of returning mid-season was the strangeness of going on the “training trip and meet[ing] all of the freshmen for the first time.”

In their first meet back, Davis and Wiseman both placed first in an individual event and Davis also helped propel her relay team into first.

One Swarthmore lacrosse student-athlete, Darrel Hunter ’15, was actually able to compete on a few lacrosse teams while abroad. The first was the Blues in the English Premier League. While Hunter noticed a big difference in the pace and style of play, the overall experience was still highly beneficial.

The talent level was surprisingly high, which helped Hunter stay on top of his game. He says, “I was lucky in that the club I played for had 6 guys who played NCAA lacrosse in the States, including former All-American Trinity midfielder Matt Cohen, and we were coached by the English national team coach Matt Bagley.” The combination of talent and coaching currently has the Blues at the top of the southern half of the Premier League.

Aside from the talent in England, Hunter noted the level of camaraderie amongst the teams that competed. After each of the games, no matter the result, the home team would always host a meal for the visiting team. At their respective fields, clubs had pubs they would use for these post-game meals. This was yet another way Hunter feels he was really able to immerse himself in the culture.

Additionally, Hunter had experiences playing for the Madrid Bears with teammate Joe Hagedorn ’15 in the Copa de España and trying out for the Spanish national team. While the talent level was substantially below that in England, Hunter took his opportunity on the Bears to learn about the Spanish culture.

Because Hunter’s mother was born in Spain, he was eligible to tryout for the national team. He said the idea of representing his country gave him the motivation he needed to work hard enough to make the team. With his success in Spain, Hunter will be representing Spain in this summer’s World Championships in Denver, CO.

Overall Hunter feels lucky that he was provided the opportunity to study abroad in the fall. His experiences in England and Spain not only gave him venues to play the sport he loves in a foreign country, but it enabled him to familiarize himself with cultures he might not normally have come to know.

All things said, Swarthmore’s athletics department certainly gets it right in letting students study abroad. The experiences of Hunter and Hagedorn, combined with the immediate success Davis and Wiseman enjoyed upon returning, validates the department’s liberal study abroad policy.

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