Being a Student Athlete Abroad
Tennis has been a constant in my life for more than 10 years. At my home institution of Pomona College, you could count on seeing me wearing athletic wear, hair in a ponytail, and carrying around my tennis racquets dashing from class to practice—I’m pretty sure some people have never seen me in “normal” clothes and think that my tennis racquets are permanently glued to my hands like Thor and his hammer. For the majority of my life, being a student-athlete has defined me as a person and been central to my identity.
My desire to study abroad has also been a constant in my life—the ability to do so was one of my priorities while choosing a college. Luckily, the Pomona-Pitzer sports department is fully committed to the full “student-athlete” experience, and even encourages you to go abroad. So with my coach’s blessing and hope that I would at least try to play some tennis while abroad, I applied to College Year in Athens (my assistant coach even wrote my letter of recommendation—s/o to Drew!).
And that’s how I ended up in the San Jose airport, lugging around 2 giant suitcases and my backpack with my tennis racquets peeking out of them, ready to accompany me to Athens for the semester, just as they had every other semester.
Of course, I knew that being away from tennis full-time would be a challenge. It was not just that I was worried I would miss playing or would have trouble trying to find a hitting partner. It was that I was scared that all the hard work I had put in last year to go from barely on the lineup to #3 would go to waste. It was also the thought that I would not be part of the team for the semester; I wouldn’t be able to welcome in the new freshmen and transfer on our team, wouldn’t be able to be a part of team bonding, and even wouldn’t be able to meet our new coach in person. I spent my 21-hour plane ride alternating between attempting to sleep and agonizing over not being able to be with the team and to improve my tennis.
However, when I got to Athens, I was smacked in the face with all the activities that I could do. Invitations to explore Athens, attend coffee festivals, have day trips to Sounion, and go to other countries were thrown at me from all directions as we all took in the feeling of being in a new country. I was in a dilemma: I felt like I should be figuring out how to fit tennis and working out into my schedule, to continue being a student-athlete, but at the same time, I was in Greece. I did not know the next time I would be able to do these types of activities again, while I knew that once my time in Greece was over, tennis would once again become central in my life.
So for a while, I happily accepted invitations for late-night souvlaki runs, day trips around Greece, and copious amount of archeological sites without a second thought. I felt liberated from my responsibilities of being an athlete and welcomed the change— I traded in chugging Pedialyte, early morning workouts, and two-a-day practices for trips to the Acropolis and checking out new coffee shops. I marveled at my ability to actually say yes. I explored all the parts of Greece I could while still balancing schoolwork without having to constantly worry about tennis, something that used to be a given. This was ideal for a while, and my love for Greece grew as I visited new places every weekend while my racquets continued to collect dust in the back of my close. But of course, every honeymoon period has to come to an end.
The worries that I had before coming here began creeping into the back of my mind. I had just spent a month and a half in Greece dilly-dallying, doing nothing “productive”, and for what? I had accomplished nothing except for gaining a slightly rounder stomach due to poor self-control and the accessibility of amazing baklava and mouth-watering souvlaki. I felt like a bad teammate, wondering what I could possibly bring back to the team if my tennis failed me.
I resolved to myself that I would get serious about trying to figure out my workout routine, and while daunting, I did. CYA helped me gather together a group of students to get a group discount at the local gym and I found a workout buddy (s/o to Bella!). I researched a couple of tennis clubs and despite a slight language barrier, eventually got into contact with Andreas, one of the private coaches at the Athens Lawn Tennis Club, a mere 15-minute walk from CYA and the home of the 1st modern Olympics for tennis. I have been taking lessons around once a week with him (as long as I’m not traveling), and it’s a lot of fun and assures me that I can still hit a ball in.
I’ve been able to find a good balance between tending to tennis, doing well in school, and fully embracing the study abroad experience that fits both my needs and wants. My lessons with Andreas and trips to the gym have proven to be a boon to my study abroad experience and not a hindrance to exploring Athens like I had originally thought. I’m able to fit tennis and working out into my schedule (as long as I don’t procrastinate too badly…) and more importantly, it gives me a chance to interact with locals more than I normally would. I was able to meet Andreas and learn more about the tennis culture in Greece and observe how locals interact in the gym (pro-tip: do not wear shorts unless you want to stick out because they all wear leggings).
Ultimately, I encourage you to study abroad, even if you’re a student-athlete. Studying abroad is truly an invaluable experience and being an athlete can actually enhance your time abroad—it’s an easy way to meet locals and teaches you another side to Greek culture that you might not necessarily get through going to cafes or hitting up archeological sites. Not only have I learned more about Greece, but it’s taught me a lot more about myself. With the disappearance of my rigid tennis schedule that I sometimes used as a crutch, I have learned another way of life of taking things as they come and it has taught me that I can be someone without tennis. As for the team, I’m updated by social media and while I do get pangs of FOMO, the constant video chats lessen the pain. Despite my fears, I still feel like I’m part of the family, even if I’m not physically there.
Just remember: your sport and your team will be patiently waiting for you when you come back—and the latter will be eager to hear about your new adventures (and maybe you can even trick the new freshmen into thinking that you’re a cool, hip, cultured person like I’m aiming to do!). Go study abroad. Learn a new culture, and use your sport to your advantage. Learn about yourself. Come back. Apply what you’ve learned. You’ll thank me for it.