College is a challenging experience for student-athletes. It is their first encounter outside of the jurisdiction of their parents or guardians, where they have to find a balance between practicing and preparing for competition, their regular school work, and other responsibilities.
From afar, these student-athletes receive support from their parents. For a lot of people, they are a few hours away from home. Some are completely across the country from their family and home. Some, like the group of students that compete for St. Ambrose’s swimming and diving team, travel from completely different countries, continents, and hemispheres to go to school and compete.
From South Africa, to Argentina, to Ukraine, to Israel and many other places, the swimming and diving team has one of the largest populations of international students on campus. In a place where they are all so far away from what is familiar, they turn to each other for a sense of belonging despite being from different parts of the world.
“International students have no choice but to be open to finding new friends when they move countries, unlike our American counterparts who have friends and family already established. That is why International students gravitate towards each other,” described junior Brett Jones from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.
Jones began swimming competitively at the age of 10, but says he didn’t take it seriously until the age of 14, when he began swimming for a club. “I realized that I was going to continue competing for the next four years, so I thought that I might as well do my very best,” said Jones.
Jones was open to the possibility of traveling internationally to compete at the collegiate level early in his college search. “When I was in my last year of high school I decided I wanted to continue swimming, and the United States is one of the few countries where collegiate level athletics is taken seriously,” Jones expressed. “It had always been a possibility for me to travel overseas. It is very common for people from my country to get their degrees out of state.”
Mikhi Hassim, a junior from Johannesburg, South Africa, also described the common trend of people coming to America to compete. “In the swimming scene in South Africa, it is a huge accomplishment for most swimmers to compete in America,” said Hassim.
Hassim was inspired by his brother to begin swimming competitively, a big change of heart for someone who hated being in the water as a kid. “When I was a kid I used to cry every time we went to a pool and it stuck until I did it competitively,” joked Hassim.
Hassim was originally committed to the University of Kentucky before Covid-19 stopped him from competing at that university. Hassim then followed his brother, who was swimming at St. Ambrose and chose to become a Fighting Bee, where he has enjoyed being a part of the large community of international students on the swimming team.
“I think we gravitate towards each other because we have an understanding of each other’s circumstances and the struggles of being an international student. When you have people going through the same journey as you, it makes it a bit easier and that’s what we appreciate most about each other’s relationships,” illustrated Hassim.
Junior Juan Gomez has always found comradery in swimming, as it is what made him grow to love the sport. “I started swimming as just a hobby. I made really good friends on my team so I started liking it more and more. We started traveling to different competitions around the country. I think that was my motivation to keep doing it, every trip we took was unforgettable and so much fun, and I think that was my motivation to keep doing it,” Gomez recounted.
Coming from Cordoba, Argentina, Gomez shared the dream of competing in the US with his fellow international swimmers, and he is grateful to once again be building relationships through swimming, just like the ones that first made him enjoy the sport.. “Going to school in the US was always my dream,” said Gomez, “We all understand each other in some way, and we all know that we can all count on each other when needed.”
Fellow Argentinian Lucas Ascua painted the picture of how difficult it can be to compete at the collegiate level in Argentina. “The colleges are much different from here. They don’t have sports teams, so you have to find a club, and then that club has to be close to your college and where you live, and then you have to find a coach or train by yourself, and finally find time for practice,” Ascua described.
For Ascua, the road to St. Ambrose has been an irregular one. He began swimming as just a hobby at five years old, before he was diagnosed with scoliosis. “Because of that, I had to do a lot of hours of swimming. I swam for 2 hours a day, and began to think of swimming competitively,” described Ascua.
Ascua began competitively swimming at 13 years old, a surprisingly late age for those competing at the collegiate level. “13 is kind of late to get involved with competitive swimming, but thanks to my long arms it was easier for me to drop times as I first got started,” Ascua illustrated.
Despite the late start, he quickly got the hang of the sport through the time he spent treating his scoliosis. So much so, that he was able to find a place competing at the collegiate level. “My mother told me, ‘Just look at the times the different swimmers at the universities have.’ So I started reaching out to different coaches around the US and Coach Miecznikowski liked my times so I decided to take the opportunity,” depicted Ascua.
What so many swimmers love about the sport is its individuality. The sport does not rely heavily on teammate involvement, placing all of the responsibility on yourself. “I didn’t have to deal with the frustration of teammates performing poorly, or the expectation to perform from teammates. It was just me, the water, and my times,” detailed Jones.
Ascua agreed, saying, “I like that the results only depend on you and how much effort you put in. There is no room for error, and the closer you get to the perfect technique, the faster you swim.”
Where a lot of athletes can rely on friends and family from back home, international students are forced to start completely anew as they move to an unfamiliar land. Thankfully, the large group of international swimmers at SAU are able to find comradery and a sense of belonging in each other as they both adapt to a new environment and share their experience in training and competing. Though they travel from many different countries and cultures, they have become a family through their shared experiences of adjustment and competition.