Cultural difference not only challenge UK’s international swimmers face

By Leila Kalegi

Moving to a foreign country can be a difficult transition by itself.

Moving to a foreign country and having to learn new aspects of a sport to compete can be an even harder transition.

That has been the case for the five international members of the men’s swimming and diving team. What their U.S. teammates might consider the norm in collegiate athletics sometimes seems like a novelty for UK’s international swimmers.

“Most are just so excited to be here in the first place,” said head coach Gary Conelly. “The facilities are so much better, the competition; college swimming is a whole lot more exciting for them. They really appreciate the opportunity.”

UK has five international swimmers from four countries: junior James Batley from Somerset, England; sophomore Elvis Burrows from Freeport, Grand Bahama; junior Warren Grobbelaar and freshman Reinhardt Strijdom from Pretoria, South Africa; and senior Kristian Outinen from Copenhagen, Denmark.

Transitioning to a new country might be difficult, but balancing between school and sports is easier in the United States, Outinen said.

“I don’t think there is any country in Europe where you can go to a university and they understand that you’re spending up to 30 hours a week on a sport, on the side of going to school,” he said. “Back home you have a decision after high school: Do I just go to a university or do I just swim? There are very few people who can balance the two.”

One of the biggest difficulties for international swimmers is adjusting to the length of the pool, Grobbelaar said. In South Africa, training and meets are held in 50-meter length pools, he said, but much of American swimming is held in 25-yard pools.

“At the beginning turns were a big issue because you have to turn more,” he said. “It’s a lot more important. It took about a year and a half to figure that out.”

Training and conditioning at UK is also more intense than it was in South Africa, Grobbelaar said.

“We definitely train a lot harder than I did back home,” he said. “We train faster, longer, we swim longer hours, we lift harder. Training as a whole is just twice as hard.”

International swimmers also have to adjust to a concept shift that American swimmers compete as a team rather than as an individual, Outinen said.

“It’s a different mentality, back home you’re used to looking out for yourself,” he said. “Here, you swim more for a team effort, you score points for the team instead of just getting your own personal best.”

Although the shift in thinking takes time, Conelly said most foreign swimmers appreciate the new system.

“Some have a real hard time figuring out the whole, ‘I’m swimming for a team, people are depending on me to do certain things,’ ” Conelly said. “Swimming is a pretty individualistic sport when you think about it, so some of them have a hard time with it. Once they figure it out, they love it because it makes (swimming) a whole lot more exciting.”