International NCAA Swimmers: A World Away From Home

Feature by Chelsea Howard

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pennsylvania, November 28. WHEN most graduating high schoolers move out and go to college, they have a sense of what to expect in a university after going through the recruiting process. They know how long it will be until they can go home next. They know their parents are just a phone call away. And, most importantly, they know the culture of America.

There is a small percentage of college swimmers, however, who make a complete life change. They travel from different continents. They leave their hometowns and never know exactly when they'll be back. They adjust to new styles of training and completely different schedules. These select few are international swimmers eager to study and train in America.

Erika Hajnal, a senior at Virginia Tech and originally from Budapest, Hungary, set a goal when she was just 14 years old to be able to swim in America.

"I was at my first senior meet when I heard two girls talking about how awesome it is to study in the U.S. So after warm-ups I told my mom what I heard and it just so happened that one of those girls' parents were sitting next to mine and explained basically everything there is to know," Hajnal said. "That was the moment I decided that I have to make it to the U.S.A."

Similar to Hajnal, Hannah Riordan, a native of Ontario, Canada, said that her club coach introduced the idea of swimming in America to her at a young age, encouraging her to pursue it.

"My club coach coached for a period in the U.S. and really approved of the type of training he saw. Seeing the success of other athletes who trained in the U.S. and would come back for national meets influenced me to check it out for myself," Riordan, who is currently a junior at Auburn University, said.

Every swimmer that makes the leap from club swimming to college swimming has to adjust to a new environment and different ways of training, but can still find similarities that help them cope. International swimmers have trouble finding similarities between their original hometowns and the new college scene that they become a part of.

A graduate of the University of Florida, Brett Fraser from Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands, said that there are far more differences training in America than there are similarities.

"The biggest change was getting used to training in a yards pool. I trained in a 6-lane, 25-meter pool," Fraser said.

Hajnal agrees with Fraser that there are far more differences coming to America, particularly with her training schedule.

"Training in Hungary was hard and time consuming. I mean I'm sure it is everywhere, but having 11 practices a week, 4 hours in the morning and 2.5 at night is just a lot," Hajnal said.

Hajnal has adjusted to smaller amounts of yardage but says the quality of each practice is different.

"I get to do more speed work and power-based practices at Virginia Tech. I also lift weights and do cardio, which I never did at home," Hajnal said.

Riordan had a different training situation than Hajnal. Her club team had trouble finding pool time in Canada.

"Our training was really dryland focused with a lot of weight lifting and running. Also, since we train in yards here, there's a greater emphasis on starts, turns and finishes. Our team works a lot more on technique," Riordan said.

A common advantage international scholars find is that the universities in America offer many more resources than their home countries. Veronica Lee, a sophomore from the University of Pittsburgh, said that a huge difference she's noticed is the facilities available to her are much nicer.

"At home, we would train in a 6 lane, 25 meter pool. Most of the lane ropes were broken and the city was cutting back budgets with plans to close several pools in the area," Lee said. "I get to live a completely different life compared to if I stayed at home."

Coming from a smaller country, Fraser said that the resources America has are virtually unlimited.

"In the aspect of swimming, the U.S. has some of the best facilities, coaching staffs, competitions, the highest health standards, and way of life. The list could go on," Fraser said.

Riordan also said that a major benefit of studying in America is the amount of money and extra help American universities have for their sports.

"In addition to coaches, our team has nutritionists, athletic trainers, student-athlete advisors, tutors, strength and conditioning coaches. They are all working towards our success in the pool and in the classroom," Riordan said.

While the recruiting process isn't easy for anyone, learning NCAA rules and trying to figure out the best universities in a foreign country is no easy task.

"I knew the big schools in the U.S. but none of the other ones. It was difficult knowing about the academics and athletics of universities and how good they were. For the most part, I had to research the universities and figure out which would be best for me," Lee said.

Before scheduling any trips, Riordan took the time to educate herself about rules of NCAA swimming.

"Any collegiate athlete will tell you that recruiting is a chaotic mess of phone calls, emails and home visits," Riordan said. "I found it especially confusing because I had no prior knowledge of NCAA swimming and did a lot of research. Many of the coaches took the time to explain how the recruiting process went and what I need to look for in schools."

However, a difficult recruiting process was not the case for all international swimmers. Both Fraser and Hajnal found it relatively easy to communicate with coaches and figure out what would be best for them.

"A couple of schools contacted me but after an unofficial trip to Gainesville to see my brother, Shaune, I knew that's where I wanted to be," Fraser said.

Hajnal said she wasn't really recruited and followed the advice of a former Hungarian coach.

"I knew a coach, David Szabo, in Pittsburgh and thought it would be best to go to a school where a Hungarian could help me out. Right before I signed the papers, he told me he wasn't going to be coaching there and put me in contact with the head coach (Ned Skinner) of his Alma Mater, Virginia Tech," Hajnal said. "I was very excited that they wanted me, so I immediately said yes."

Having lived a year in a new country, Lee is happy with her decision to come to an American university.

"I feel like I started a completely new chapter in my life that's exciting and different," Lee said. "I've met tons of really nice people and have made lifelong friends that I know I wouldn't have been able to do without swimming."

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