This article was written by John Frierson for Georgiadogs.com. To view the original article, click here.
Jack Bauerle can’t imagine collegiate swimming without the international student-athletes that add so much to the sport.
“I think it’s been a good thing for swimming and I think it’s made our NCAA Championships the best championships in the world,” Georgia’s Tom Cousins Swimming and Diving Head Coach said. “Arguably, from top to bottom, from 1-16, it’s the best meet in the world as far as depth — even better than the Olympic Games.”
And that’s coming from a man that has not only led the Georgia women to seven NCAA team titles but also been the head coach of the U.S. Women’s Olympic team (2008) and served as an assistant numerous times, including earlier this year in Tokyo.
When it comes to recruiting internationally, Bauerle said, coaching at the top international meets, and having Georgia swimmers shine as they did in Tokyo, “makes us much more visible” to coaches and elite junior swimmers.
“We have credibility right away, and that’s a big deal,” he said.
In the old days, before the Internet made learning about people and places as easy as pulling out your phone or laptop, and before Georgia was known worldwide in swimming circles for being an elite program, “you had to know somebody that knew somebody. Now, we get interest from overseas by two or three athletes every week,” Bauerle said.
In November, the University of Georgia has celebrated International Education Month, and the UGA Athletic Association has also recognized and honored everything the 39 international Bulldogs, spread over 12 sports, bring to Georgia Athletics, on and off the field.
On Nov. 15, the Student-Athlete Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee partnered with UGA International Student Life for a panel discussion on the experience of international students and student-athletes at Georgia. On Nov. 18, at the women’s basketball game against Mercer, The Georgia Way hosted an International Education Month celebration, with an in-game recognition of the international student-athletes in attendance. And at halftime, the honorees were treated to snacks and desserts from their home countries.
“This month has provided us with several unique opportunities to celebrate our international student-athletes and the diversity of our athletic and campus community,” said Courtney Gay, Georgia’s Assistant Athletic Director for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. “We also enjoyed the chance to collaborate with UGA International Student Life and provide a fun, educational opportunity for our student-athletes to connect with other student leaders on campus.”
For some of Georgia’s international student-athletes, coming to Athens and the University of Georgia was a step into the unknown. Women’s basketball freshman Alina Sendar, from Amsterdam, had never visited campus before moving here over the summer. She didn’t get to take an official visit because of travel restrictions during the pandemic.
“I was very nervous, yeah, especially because I came a month later (than the other freshmen). I was like, ‘Oh, how’s it going to be? I’m coming here with all of these people that I’ve never seen before in my life.’ But everything turned out great,” she said, adding, “They have welcomed me in with such open arms and they’ve been so nice to me.”
For track and field senior Karel Tilga, of Tartu, Estonia, there was already a pipeline of great decathletes from Estonia coming to Georgia. Maicel Uibo, Karl Saluri and Johannes Erm had already been Bulldogs under former head coach Petros Kyprianou, and Tilga was just following in their footsteps. Tilga also followed in Uibo and Erm’s footsteps by winning an NCAA title in the decathlon, as well as an NCAA indoor heptathlon championship.
Tilga said adjusting to speaking English all of the time was a challenge early on, especially in his classes when the subject matter ranged beyond typical conversational English. Tilga said he first learned English from watching Cartoon Network back home.
“If you’re trying to understand higher-level information and retain it, if it’s not your first language it can be tough,” he said.
Over time, as Tilga’s English got better and better the language barrier largely disappeared. Another thing that took some getting used to was the friendliness of people around UGA and Athens.
“I like the culture here, it’s very different from Estonia,” he said. “I’d say in Estonia people are mostly very distant and don’t maybe talk to random people as much as they do here. People here are friendlier. Estonian people aren’t not friendly because they’re mean, it’s just the way we are [laughs].
“It took me time to get used to it because I, myself, am a very introverted person so I don’t go up to people myself and ask how they’re doing. I would say it was a learning curve at first, for sure, but now I’m pretty used to it and I don’t think about it as much anymore.”
In many other countries, elite athletes have to choose between continuing their training or their students; they often can’t do both. That was the case in Italy for women’s golfer Caterina Don and in Taiwan for her teammate Jo Hua Hung.
“The reason why I came to the U.S. is here they have better education and also they have the NCAA system for golf,” said Hung, a senior from New Taipei City, Taipei, located within the country of Taiwan. “In Taiwan, if we get into college we don’t have such a nice system to support you. You can’t play golf and go to school, you have to choose one. For me, I wanted to do both.”
Don, from Pinerolo, Italy, said she’d heard about the U.S. collegiate golf experience from other players on the Italian national team. They “were coming home for Christmas and telling us how much they were excited to be on a college team, how fun the whole thing was.”
So when Don first started getting recruited, she was very receptive. A couple of weeks after taking an unofficial visit to Georgia, Don committed. She later took an official visit and attended her first Georgia football game.
“I think it’s a really good opportunity that we have. I mean, I fell in love with Georgia the first time I stepped foot on campus. And I think I made the best decision,” she said.
One thing that works in Georgia’s favor when it comes to recruiting internationally is Athens’ proximity to Atlanta — and the Atlanta airport. Yes, Brazilian hammer thrower Alencar Pereira likes being able to go over to Atlanta for some proper food from back home. He began his collegiate career at a junior college in Kansas, then transferred to Nebraska before becoming a Bulldog.
“One of the things, for sure, is churrasco, that’s Brazilian barbecue,” the junior from São Jose do Rio Preto, Brazil, said of foods from home he misses during an interview earlier this year. “It’s a lot of different kinds of meats, and that’s another reason why I wanted to transfer to UGA, because we live an hour away from Atlanta and there are a lot of Brazilian places there. Oh, gosh, I miss that so much!”
The proximity of one of the world’s busiest and most important airports is a bigger deal than you might think, said women’s golf coach Josh Brewer. Once student-athletes are on campus and in their routines, they get settled in well into their lives as Bulldogs. But the ability to drive a little more than an hour to the airport and take a direct flight home, or something close to it, very much works in Georgia’s favor.
“You can be home in one flight,” Brewer said. “It’s not that far away, the world. It’s a great benefit for us.”
Brewer said he lived in different parts of the U.S. while growing up, so he met all kinds of people and made a variety of friends. “You learn something every day,” he said. And he likes that he has a team of 10 players, half of them from another country, that are always teaching one another something new.
“I get excited about the rest of the world,” he said. “It’s just fun, it’s enjoyable. Seeing all of these different personalities and watching them mesh.”
For Bauerle, Georgia’s coach for more than 40 years, he’s been recruiting internationally since the 1980s. He’s had many international NCAA champions, All-Americans and Olympians in that time. He loves what the international swimmers bring to the team in the pool, but it’s what they add out of the water that’s really special, he said.
“They bring a little bit of an education to the (American) student-athletes that we have here — they broaden their minds,” he said. “When you spend four years on a team with someone, you ended up really close. Because of that, so many of my student-athletes ended up traveling, which broadens anybody’s horizons.”