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Wednesday March 22nd

For international athletes in Chapel Hill, UNC's rivalry with Duke transcends cultures

<p>DTH File. Senior midfielder, Eva Smolenaars, at the game against Wake Forest on Friday, Oct. 30, 2020.</p>
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DTH File. Senior midfielder, Eva Smolenaars, at the game against Wake Forest on Friday, Oct. 30, 2020.

The UNC-Duke rivalry might be foreign to some college athletes from outside North Carolina, but for international athletes, it’s a whole different experience.

Three such UNC senior athletes had very different journeys to Chapel Hill but share the same challenge of adapting to a community infatuated with college basketball. 

Field hockey star Eva Smolenaars admitted that basketball itself was almost entirely foreign to her when she arrived in Chapel Hill.

Hailing from the soccer-loving nation of the Netherlands, Smolenaars developed a passion for the game of basketball. She was amazed to see the spectacle it created, watching fans pack the Dean E. Smith Center full to watch their beloved Tar Heels play. It helped her adjust to life in the state as she progressed through her college years.

But the games against Duke brought an entirely new level of excitement.

“There were fires everywhere on Franklin Street and there were so many people just celebrating,” Smolenaars said. “That makes you realize how big of a rivalry this is, and it’s so cool to be part of that, especially when you win.”

Australian cross country star Jesse Hunt also recalled storming the streets of Chapel Hill with his friends. 

“That was the most wild thing,” he said. “I couldn’t believe that a college sports team could produce that.”

Hunt knew about college basketball. He was a fan of the sport, but the heavy emotions tied to these big rivalry games came as a total surprise to him. 

“A lot of my friends in high school were into college basketball, so you get to know the bigger teams,” Hunt said. “Then, every year when the Duke-UNC game comes around, we kind of talked about it a little, but I was only 10 percent of the way there. When I got here, I really realized the other 90 percent of it.” 

Now in his third year running for North Carolina, Hunt has seamlessly progressed from solely being an athlete to becoming a diehard UNC fan. He said the passion surrounding the game satisfied his avid love for college sports, helping make the 35-hour trip from home worth it.

Unlike Smolenaars and Hunt, graduate women's basketball player Petra Holešínká's journey comes in several parts. She initially left her home in the Czech Republic to play for the Illinois women's basketball team. It was there where she got her first taste of an in-state college rivalry, developing a deep hatred for Northwestern. It was a bitter rivalry, but it doesn't compare to UNC-Duke. 

“I knew about it when I was at home, but then coming to the U.S. and watching some of the games and seeing it on social media — that was when I really realized it was huge here,” Holešínká said.

Just like Smolenaars and Hunt, she’d never witnessed two universities having such an intense athletic matchup. The only thing in her country that came close was when the Czech Men's Ice Hockey National Team defeated Russia, a country that had occupied the state for many years, in the 1998 Winter Olympics to earn the gold medal.

This was the reality for Holešínká: comparing an American college feud to an international conflict associated with actual warfare.

While she won’t get to play in a game against the Blue Devils, she almost got a firsthand experience of beating them when the Illinois men's basketball team defeated Duke, 83-68, in December. 

“I was so happy, first of all, for the Illinois boys and just seeing Duke lose is always a good feeling,” she said.

The stories of Smolenaars, Hunt and Holešínká prove that no matter what country you hail from, the UNC-Duke rivalry is able to capture the hearts of its adherents and leave lasting effects on them that are felt long after they leave the Triangle.  

“I’ll never forget it,” Hunt said. “Absolutely never forget rushing Franklin. I’ll never forget the rivalry. It’ll be a memory that lives with me forever.”


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