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An International Perspective of American College Sports

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I lost count of how many times people asked me why I left Brazil and came to the United States to go to college and to swim. My Australian, Swedish, Israeli, and Italian teammates have also been questioned for the same reasons. “Why America?”, “What is special about college in USA?”, “Our education is not even that good.” 

Oh Americans, let me tell you - you guys should feel grateful for having the education system that you have and for all the support and investment you get as student-athletes. You, Americans, should be thankful for not having to choose between your sport and a good education and for not having to reach the age of 30 without a degree because your talent as an athlete was so great that you did not want to waste it.

Quitting school is the only option for many athletes that want to follow their training with quality. In fact, a lot of athletes in other countries do try to do both, as I tried ... but have you heard that saying that you are rowing, rowing and rowing and not going anywhere? That is exactly how I felt. Not all the countries encourage athletes like United States does. College sports? NCAA? There is no such thing in Brazil. If "college athletes" in Brazil train 4 hours per week, you can say it was a great week. For this reason, top athletes in Brazil train in clubs and live as a professional athlete.

Trying to figure out what I wanted for my life while living in Brazil was a struggle. I didn’t want stop studying but I knew that I wasn’t done with swimming yet. I graduated from high school and chose the path that the majority of Brazilian athletes choose: I stopped studying and dedicated 100% of my time to swimming. I would wake up at 6am, train, go home, have lunch, rest, and go back to my club for the second training session. I did this every day for a whole year. You are probably thinking "what a good life". And I heard frustrating questions from a lot of people, such as: "So, what do you do with your life? Just train?“ 

Well, I did not "just train"...I trained all day. Probably the 20 hours of training (amount of training allowed by the NCAA) were reached in 3 days. I have to admit that at first I loved this life. I spent hours of my day doing the sport I love, and when I was not training, I did not have to worry about anything besides eating good food and resting. I had time to enjoy my family, friends and even to catch up with all TV shows.

However, as time went by I began to feel useless and that monotonous routine got me. I felt like my life had a “blank space” that needed to be filled in with something else. I applied for college and I got accepted, but since I still wanted to train in high intensity, I had to opt for a not-so-prestigious college. However, it was still impossible to manage both training and school. I had class every day from 7pm-11pm, and my second training session ended at 7pm. Have you done the math? I had zero minutes to get out of the pool, take a “shower”, try to stop smelling like chlorine, and face the chaotic traffic on my way from my club to school. I also had to find some time to get some food in my system, which wasn’t easy.

Obviously, I was always super late to class and although teachers knew I was a high-performance athlete, they "had nothing to do with it."  I got countless zeros in tests that I had to miss due to travel meets, I missed a lot of points because of attendance and participation and the average of 35 hours of training a week didn’t allow me to dedicate much time to studies outside the classroom. I did this for a year and a half because I thought this was better than nothing.

After a while I realized that this crazy routine was affecting me. All the stress and fatigue was affecting my performance, and my academic achievements were not where they were supposed to be. I wasn’t happy and something needed to change, so that was when moving to United States appeared to be an option for me. I did not want to stop studying and go back to that life where swimming was all I did. I believe that athletes already spend too much time thinking about their sport and ways to improve their performance, so we need other "occupations" when we are away from the courts, swimming pools or gym. On the other hand, I couldn’t keep doing what I was doing anymore. Not because it was too hard but because it wasn’t healthy. I was killing myself to graduate from a college that wasn’t even good. After researching and talking to other athletes, friends and family, I came to the conclusion that the best decision to make would be to come to the United States.

No doubt it was the best thing that ever happened in my life and I will list some of the advantages and benefits of being a student-athlete in the United States:

#1 - Seriousness and Organization

The college teams are very organized and have a budget specially destined for trips, equipment and training, besides offering all the necessary structure for the development of the athletes. This is unique.

#2 - University Support

The college pays all expenses related to the sport: uniforms, travel, doctors, physiotherapy, psychologists, and nutritionists. In many other countries, each athlete is responsible for his or her own expenses.

#3 - Life Experience

Living away from home for 4 years makes you independent and matures you much faster. Your mother is no longer around to wash your clothes, go to the grocery store, clean your room, or help you with your homework. You become responsible for everything in your life and learn to have a lot of initiative and discipline.

#4 - Bilingual

Obviously, an international student-athlete already fluently speaks a different language. Even if your English is not the best when you arrive in the United States, 4 years of living and studying here and spending time with Americans will make you fluent and you will have at least two languages in your resume, which is highly valued by companies.

#5 - Extra Mental Strength

Every student-athlete, even Americans, develop a special mental strength just because they are living away from the family while having to keep up with classes, practices, errands and social life. Who has never felt homesick? The difference is that for many international athletes, the 12-hour flight distance to their home and the price of tickets prevents them from seeing their family for a long period of time. Christmas spent in American family houses, Thanksgiving in college dorms, long months without seeing anyone in your family and without living your culture or eating the food you are used to. All of it creates an extra mental strength.


Cecilia with her international teammates at San Diego State University