EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Lizzie Brown, from Ashburton, New Zealand, wasn’t ready to give up swimming upon graduating high school. But taking time off from academics wasn’t ideal for her either.
Lachie McLeish, from Sydney, Australia, wanted the best of both worlds, working towards a college degree while remaining a competitive swimmer.
In the end, both swimmers found a way to do just that, but it wasn’t in their home countries. International college athletes are drawn to travel to the U.S. for college, for the education and athletic opportunities alike.
“At home you can’t really study and swim at the same time unless you are a professional,” said Brown, a junior on Michigan State’s swim team. “I had to choose one or the other if I stayed at home and I wasn’t ready to retire from swimming so I decided to start looking for schools over here.”
Michigan State currently has five international swimmers coming from Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Israel and Canada. While countries such as Australia and New Zealand stick out, according to MSU swim coach Matt Gianiodis, international swimmers come from everywhere and MSU has been the training ground for swimmers from all around the world.
Gianiodis said most countries cannot offer what Americans have become so used to with college athletics.
“Swimming is very popular in a lot of countries, and many kids find that they have a better situation here in the NCAA system,” said Gianiodis.
Brown and McLeish looked to recruiting agencies, such as FirstPointUSA, for assistance in landing athletic scholarships.
“I got in contact with a recruiting agency and sent them all my details, like my school grades and swimming times and they put together a profile of me and what I’ve achieved and sent it out to a bunch of schools,” said McLeish, a MSU freshman. “Once schools contacted me, we began to communicate via email and Skype.”
The difficulties with international recruiting are due to differences in academic standards, such as with standardized testing. The SAT and ACT are not taken outside of the United States, and pose a daunting task for an international student.
American-style grade point averages are also a new concept for international students. The swimmers left it up to the NCAA and recruiting agencies to come up with a GPA, based on their transcripts, with both noting that the process was very long.
While the process for the athletes proved to be difficult, recruiting by the coaches tends to be a tad bit simpler. Unlike some sports, recruiting international swimmers is easy because everything is time based and coaches are able to see the results.
Gianiodis, who is experienced in recruiting international swimmers, said that the recruiting process takes no more time and effort for a domestic student.
Often, the international swimmers are easier to recruit, because he said they “will not be turned off by the conditions of the facilities”, and focus more on what opportunities the school can offer.
“I narrowed it down based on the school itself, the academic programs and the opportunities that could come out of it. Michigan State is just such a big school, I thought I could probably get the most out of it,” said Brown.
Brown, a child development major who wants to enter elementary education in New Zealand and McLeish, a finance major planning on law school back in Australia, were both influenced because of Michigan State’s academic programs.
While coming to the States to receive an education and continue their athletic training is seen as an amazing experience, international students deal with the stresses of being so far from home.
“It’s definitely hard being so far, because when it comes to the breaks and everyone’s getting excited to go home, you are like, ‘Well, I am excited to go to someone else’s home,’ so that’s difficult,” said Brown laughingly, as she has been home only twice in three years at MSU.
Brown said that staying in contact with friends and family back home is one of the hardest things due to the time difference, but credits Skype, Facebook and Viber as being “the best inventions ever”. In addition to social media helping bridge the distance between home and East Lansing, there is the support of fellow teammates and coaches.
“The team has been really supportive, but there are still the days when you just want to go home and be with your friends and family,” said McLeish, who will be returning home for the first time since arriving in August 2014, to compete in Australia’s National Championship in Sydney.
Australia’s National Championship is held annually, with the top competitors making the Australian World University Games team. McLeish will be competing in the 100- and 200- meter freestyle, with the hopes of making his first national team in preparation for his goal of eventually making the 2016 and 2020 Olympic teams.
Gianiodis said that the goal for everyone is to make their national team.
“I would be lying if I’d said going to the Olympics hadn’t always been a dream of mine,” said Brown. “I am definitely going to go to trials next year and see what happens.”
Trials in New Zealand are every four years and Brown plans on traveling home in January 2016 to compete in her best events, the 200- meter butterfly and 400- meter I.M., with the hopes of competing in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Michigan State’s swim team is no stranger to having athletes making their national teams. One of the most famous, Chris-Carol Bremer, swam on the German Olympic team in the 1992 and 1996 Games.
McLeish, Brown and their fellow international swimmers all have a chance at securing national team spots in their home countries, and through Big Ten and NCAA competitions, they increase their chances.
“Just being at Big Ten’s, that was a really big competition, it was similar to what the national championships will be like,” said McLeish. “And then hopefully making NCAA’s in the next couple years will be another step up because of how fast it is and how hard it is to qualify.”
With goals of qualifying for the Olympics and the need to go home to compete, international student swimmers once again experience the benefits of attending school in the U.S.
They typically will be gone for two weeks, as most swim competitions last a week, plus travel time, the time difference adjustment, and a day or two of training. McLeish will be missing two full weeks of school in order to compete in his national championships, and having understanding professors and helpful academic advisors eases his stress.
“My professors have been really helpful through this, because I will be missing three exams and a major paper,” said McLeish. “They are giving me chances to sort of make up the work that I’m missing and opportunities to do stuff while I am over there.”
Overall, MSU’s international swimmers view coming to the States to swim as beneficial and both McLeish and Brown recommend others to do the same.
“I feel like being here is benefiting me a lot, just from putting myself out of my comfort zone,” said McLeish.
They both acknowledged that studying abroad isn’t for everyone though and one must have the right mindset to succeed.
“You need to be open to different things because its a whole different experience to what you will have at home,” said Brown. “Its an experience you can’t get anywhere else.”