An International Touch
If you walked past the tennis courts or even watched a men’s basketball game at the Bren, it should become apparent that UCI athletics is not solely made up of American-born athletes.
This year, UC Irvine had 12 international student athletes in various sports out of a total of 487 UCI athletes.
The numbers have steadily increased through the decades.
In the 1984-1985 school year, there were just four international student athletes.
A decade later, six would compete for UCI in the 1994-1995 school year.
And just last year, a boost of 10 foreign student athletes played for UCI.
The steady increase of international student-athletes are not only meeting the demands of their sport in a foreign country, but also flourishing as standout athletes at UCI and in the Big West Conference.
Junior swimmer Lara Bjargardottir has garnered several Big West titles since the 2002-2003 school year, most notably in the 200 IM, as she’s placed first and just this year second in the event at the Big West Conference Championships.
Bjargardottir also competed for her native Iceland in the 2004 Olympics.
Amiable, yet intense, Swedish tennis ace senior Anna Bentzer has been named the Big West Athlete of the Year for the second straight year and honored for the first time as UCI’s Female Big West Athlete of the Year.
Like most international athletes at UCI, Bentzer had to contact UCI Women’s Tennis Coach Mike Edles on her own.
Bentzer wanted to come to California because she ‘heard the tennis was good, the UC schools were good and I wanted to come to a sunny place. I took a chance because I didn’t know much about the school.’
Most UCI head coaches do not have the funds to recruit beyond the United States.
Bentzer sent Edles a video of herself playing tennis and her results. Edles talked to her coach, as well.
The decision to move away from her native Sweden was a bit hard, because after graduating from high school Bentzer either had to go pro or get an education.
‘It was hard, but not too much because I knew it was such a great opportunity for me,’ Bentzer said. ‘I got to do what I wanted. Play tennis and study for free!’
Though Bentzer at first convinced herself that she would only be gone for a year, in order to ease the thought of being gone for so long, she has stayed at UCI for the full four years.
The transition to American culture did have its effects at first with Bentzer.
‘In the beginning, everything was weird to me. Now there are few things that surprise me,’ Bentzer said. ‘I didn’t like the food, but I’ve found my favorites now. It is easier to get to know people now and I don’t have much of an accent anymore.’
Bentzer plans to move back to Sweden at the end of the year but plans to visit the States frequently.
How does she stay in touch with loved ones? Through e-mails, letters, the phone and Skype, an online telephone.
With no family in California, Bentzer has relied on her friends and teammates.
She has brought a strong work ethic that combines hard work and keeping her cool while playing tennis.
UCI Men’s Tennis Head Coach Steve Clark believes international student athletes bring a maturity and strong will to their respective sports when in the United States.
In the men’s starting lineup, four out of the eight are from around the world.
Senior Ryusuke Kashiwabara (Japan), junior Olof Sjolund (Sweden), sophomore Mustafa Ulukan (Turkey) and freshman Victor Lamm (France).
Clark’s first priority when looking for new players is ‘Californians, then U.S., and if I hear word of mouth or if some guy contacts me that’s foreign,’ Clark said. ‘For example, most guys on the team contacted me or had somebody who knew me.’
Clark said that tennis, track and field and soccer are predominantly foreign sports in college athletics.
CDs, DVDs and videos are ways in which coaches familiarize themselves with foreign athletes.
‘In general, most foreigners are more mature then your average American,’ Clark said.
He also believes foreign students are great in academics, not materialistic, mentally tough and more patient with the baseline in the specific sport of tennis.
‘Their work ethic and appreciation for everything skyrockets. To them it’s like a new life,’ Clark said. ‘It’s kind of neat to have these guys share their experiences.’
Some of the tennis players, like Sjolund and Lamm, have traveled around Europe on railways since they were 15, either by themselves or with clubs.
‘These guys are the dreams,’ Clark said, as they get to come to America and experience something totally new while getting an education and doing what they love: playing tennis.
Lamm, or as his teammates call him, ‘Frenchy,’ decided to come to the United States in a similar fashion as Bentzer.
‘I really love tennis, so I wanted to keep playing and I wanted to go to California for the weather and UC Irvine has good academics,’ Lamm said.
This decision came a whole year after Lamm finished his secondary schooling in France.
Lamm was not absolutely sure of leaving; he thought about it a lot.
He finally applied to a few universities around the nation but chose UCI because he heard good things about it and he received a scholarship. As international student athletes have to pay out-of-state fees, a scholarship is of great importance.
Like Bentzer, Lamm e-mailed Clark first, who then answered back.
Lamm sent Clark a video of himself playing and talked to him a few times on the phone.
‘[Clark] liked my game, but I didn’t know what to expect, that’s why I was scared,’ Lamm said.
Lamm, who had never been to the United States,, experienced it for the first time when he came to visit and to start his career here at UCI last year.
‘I was scared and I didn’t know anybody from America. You feel lost,’ Lamm said about how he felt in the beginning.
Though still unsure about whether he will stay after he finishes his four years at UCI, Lamm is happy he did it.
‘I learned a lot. It’s nice to be in another country. I think I grew more mature,’ Lamm said.
Lamm does not have any relatives in the United States, but considers his teammates to be his family.
International student athletes can only really go home during Christmas and summer. Lamm already went home for Christmas and will be going back for most of the summer.
His family has already come to see him play at UCI and he was just named Big West Freshman of the Year.
What does he love about living here?
‘The sun,’ Lamm said jokingly.
But it’s not just about the weather but also about the people in general.
Lamm said they are ‘more relaxed. I like California and people here. [They] helped me a lot here.’
Regarding his French accent, Lamm jokingly added that he believes, ‘Paris people are crazy, but France is good too.’
Even though Lamm can speak English quite well, he is still a little shy about the way it sounds.
Lamm believes he may bring more maturity on the court as an international athlete.
The United States is ‘as good as expected, maybe even better,’ Lamm admitted.
Lamm calls his mom on a weekly basis, twice if something major happens, and continues to keep in contact with all his friends and relatives through the Internet.
Sophomore forward Nic Campbell, who plays for UCI’s men’s basketball team, also communicates online to all his friends from back home in Tasmania, Australia.
Campbell’s parents, however, call him twice a week to touch base.
The men’s basketball team is the only team whose coaches have traveled abroad to recruit, but Campbell actually got in contact with Associate Head Coach Todd Lee.
Campbell sent Lee a film of him playing basketball. Campbell had been playing for the renowned Australian Institute of Sport.
When it was time to apply, UCI was not the only place Campbell looked at, since other schools were interested as well, but ‘in the end, one of the coaches I knew recommended [UCI] as a good academic institute and thought it was a pretty good program.’
To go to the United States brought different opportunities for Campbell, like a free education and the ability to continue to play basketball.
‘It was tough,’ Campbell said about leaving home. ‘I had to weigh up, either play pro league at home or come here and experience a new culture. Education is a big deal.’
Like Lamm, Campbell has no family in America but his family recently visited and watched him play at the 2005 Big West Tournament.
There are not that many differences between Australia and America, Campbell said, as the two ‘cultures are pretty similar.’
Campbell did not have to deal with the language barrier, though he maintains a strong Aussie accent.
Campbell’s first year was tough but, as he said, ‘Each year [I] make more and more friends, play more and I feel a lot more comfortable.’
Clark’s statement rings true about international student-athletes. They are living their dreams by taking a chance on a new experience.