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The Daily Tar Heel

Foreign Flavor Hits College Sports

Seeking a combination of academics and athletics, foreign competitors are now found on 13 varsity teams.

On one hand, athletes are often associated with playing fields and performances, seen through a media focused on athletic, not academic, statistics.

Alternatively, athletics are supported and regulated by the university, and athletes are given the same educational opportunities as other students.

For all of the confusion surrounding the term, though, the notion of the student-athlete is inextricably attached to our ideas of higher education in the United States, where conceptions of physical vigor and intellectual growth are intimately connected.

This combination of athletics and academics is a uniquely American pursuit, one unequalled in scope and magnitude anywhere in the world.

It is also a combination that draws foreign athletes to Chapel Hill.

The opportunity both to play sports and to attain a college degree is rarely available in any other nation, and certainly not with the overall quality that American institutions offer.

Such was Holly Strauss' train of thought when she left her native Dundas, Ontario, Canada and followed a volleyball scholarship to Chapel Hill. Strauss, a junior psychology major and Dean's List student, decided in high school to come to the United States for its intercollegiate athletics.

"If you are going to pursue academics, you don't play sports in Canada," Strauss said. "Here you can do both and not have to sacrifice your education."

Strauss is one of 23 international athletes at UNC participating in Division I athletics. Thirteen of the 22 Tar Heel teams have foreign athletes, with the tennis (six), cross country (four) and track and field (three) squads providing the most international representation.

More than half of UNC's sports utilize international athletes, including women's basketball player Jenni Laaksonen from Finland, men's tennis player Marcio Petrone from Brazil and recently graduated men's soccer player Danny Jackson from England.

But Chapel Hill is certainly not the biggest home-away-from-home for foreign talents. At smaller colleges and West Coast schools that focus primarily on non-revenue sports, foreigners make up a high percentage of total athletes.

The men's tennis squads of the University of California at Los Angeles, Middle Tennessee State and Virginia Commonwealth, for example, are composed entirely of international athletes.

"I don't anticipate that we would go the route of having fully international teams," said Beth Miller, UNC associate athletic director. "I understand why some schools have done it, but I don't think that we will go that route."

The number of foreign athletes at any given school varies based on several factors, including overall school mission, reputation and coaches' preferences.

"We give first preference to athletes stateside, but we are certainly not opposed to bringing in international students," Miller said. "We first look to the state of North Carolina and give them the opportunity if they want to play here, then to the rest of the country, then overseas."

But Paul Kostin, tennis coach at VCU, doesn't have the luxury of opting for domestic athletes first.

"A lot of time we just cannot get the (U.S.) recruits that we want," said Kostin, a Swede. "(U.S.) kids are picky; it's easy to coach at UNC. We try to fill up the team with anything that we can."

While the main reason for that recruiting plan lies in UNC's state-funded status, it's also much harder to admit international student-athletes, especially those from less-industrialized nations.

Like domestic athletes, international athletes must meet the NCAA's basic requirements, including an 820 on the SAT and a base GPA in core classes.

The SAT, although administered worldwide, is offered as infrequently as once a year in some nations. Additionally, high school transcripts and grading scales must be decoded, said admissions representative Sue Clapper.

"The process becomes much easier if the coach helps," Clapper said. "If (athletes) have someone to guide them then the process can be made easier."

For Strauss, the process was "nothing to lose sleep over." Coach Joe Sagula made the process easier by sifting through the tedious forms and paperwork. Ultimately, it was long but doable.

But for most international athletes, applying to UNC is the last of a number of preparatory steps they must go through to play in the United States.

International high school athletes must consciously decide to pursue a career in both academics and athletics. Their decision entails constructing a high school experience that allows for the maintenance of grades and sports, a combination absent in many countries.

To compensate, athletes must take steps to ensure that their high school offers the requisite coursework while also finding a platform to both improve and demonstrate their athletic skills.

"People (outside of the United States) usually choose between academics or athletics in high school," Strauss said. "If you don't do sports, you do academics. If you want to play at an American college, you do both."

For Strauss that meant attending an academically focused high school and honing her volleyball skills primarily on the Ontario-based Seekers Volleyball Club, not at her high school, St. Mary's.

"My club travelled a lot and got good exposure," Strauss said. "If you are going to come to (the United States), then you want to play on a club team."

It was her performances on the club level that attracted college recruiters. Without the club, Strauss' only way of evidencing her ability would have been to send out videotapes to U.S. schools, a method with varied results at best.

Finding a platform for performance can be further complicated when the lines between amateur club sports blur with professional sports. Often, foreign athletes who participate in non-high school organized competition have to forfeit some or all of their collegiate eligibility.

Similarly, the commitment foreign athletes must make at an American university is intense.

"A lot of good athletes come here and (U.S. sports) are at such a high caliber than they are used to," Strauss said.

The consensus among international athletes is that the competition in the United States is higher than what they experienced at their home institutions.

"It is harder here; we run more mileage, and the runners are generally faster," said Canadian-born runner Carol Henry. "Overall it's more intense."

Getting used to the increased competition is but one of the hurdles international athletes face -- they must also leave family, friends and deal with cultural differences.

Through their fellow athletes, though, international athletes build a family-like environment here, Strauss said.

Tennis coach Sam Paul echoed Strauss' experience.

"We really have an athletic family here," Paul said. "It's a family for all of the athletes, but it works especially well for the kids from overseas."

Besides being part of their athletic family, international athletes also bring an added level of diversity to their teammates and the rest of UNC, at which 82 percent of students are in-state.

The international athlete, then, seems to satisfy the roles of both student and athlete. Academically capable, the foreign athlete both learns from the university and teaches others about their home culture and traditions all while performing at the highest level of collegiate athletics.

This dual role in the community can be appreciated by all -- students, coaches, and administrators, like Miller.

"We certainly enjoy having the international students on our teams," Miller said. "They significantly add to the diversity of a team and that is beneficial to everyone. It ends up being a nice mix."

The Sports Editor can be reached at sports@unc.edu.

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