The travel team: International athletes find homes on the field at Wash. U.
“Wow, talking about home, it gets me emotional, man.”
Sean Connors starts tearing up about halfway through our interview. A sophomore midfielder on the Washington University men’s soccer team, Connors is telling me about his experience growing up Tokorozawa, a city outside Tokyo in Japan. He remains choked up for the remainder of the conversation.
Connors is one of three international athletes at Wash. U., along with senior Ryan Albaum, an offensive lineman on the football team, and men’s tennis junior Bernardo Neves. They make up less than three-fifths of 1 percent of Wash. U.’s 506 varsity athletes, a far cry from the 21.61 percent of international students that enumerate the University’s total enrollment.
Suffice to say, international athletes represent the tiniest branch of the Red and Green tree. These are their stories.
The Wash. U. bubble, perception or phenomenon, is a palpable theme around Danforth Campus. For Connors, this is not a new situation––he grew up in and out of a very real bubble. Attending the American School in Japan, Connors lived two lives in Saitama Prefecture: one Japanese, one wholly American.
“When I wake up, I get on the train, the crowded…trains on the JR (Japanese Railways) line, and I’m surrounded by all these Japanese salarymen that [smell awful] and then I get off and I walk to school,” Connors said. “As soon as I walk into school, it’s a completely different environment. It’s like its own little world.”
“Everybody in there is pretty much white. All the teachers are American, none of them are Japanese. Only the teachers that teach Japanese are Japanese. Sometimes we’d host events with the local Japanese school and when they’d come into our school they’d be, ‘What the hell is going on?’”
“Thinking about it now, it’s pretty bizarre.”
Still, Connors loved being able to draw from both cultures. He took those trains on his own starting at age five, because Japan’s system is so safe. His friends around the neighborhood were Japanese, but his classmates were pulled from a melting pot. He loves Japanese food the most: rice, sushi and ramen galore.
But he also got a fair bite of American life. Some things were no different than for the nearly 80 percent of Wash. U. students who grew up in the United States: AP classes, SAT and ACT exams, social media. His dad hails from Buffalo, N.Y. and he has family in San Jose, Calif. and Pittsburgh, so for all intents and purposes, Connors made his way across the country before crossing the ocean.
After his sophomore year of high school, Connors made his way to a University of California, Berkeley camp to get looked at for soccer. That’s the barrier of entry for international students hoping to play in the NCAA––control the process.
“No coach is just going to fly out to Tokyo and watch you play,” Connors said.
Connors was looking to check off two boxes: a Division I program, naturally, and a top business school. He had never even heard of Wash. U. Head coach Joe Clarke, however, was in attendance for Connors’s MVP performance and the two began a dialogue a month later. After doing some research, Connors discovered the Olin Business School and decided to visit Wash. U. his junior spring. He couldn’t help but fall in love with it all: the team, the school and the campus. He committed the August before senior year, sent his application and prepared to live 15 hours earlier in St. Louis.
“I definitely wanted to go to a very competitive soccer program because I didn’t want to half-ass what I loved doing, and I love playing soccer,” Connors said. “[Clarke] really sold me on the fact that he really cares about our academics first. And that was something that was very important to me because I didn’t want to have a coach that was pressing soccer way over school, just because you come to a school like this for the school itself.”
In terms of soccer, Connors didn’t have to compromise his style because Clarke’s system mirrored the one Connors already knew. And that small comfort––not having to learn a new game––helped the rest of Connors’s life fall in line.
“Japan has a very quick style of play: pass, pass, pass,” Connors said. “Obviously there’s some big dudes on the team like Ryan Sproule. But I think our style of play emulates a Japanese style of play…Joe actually likes to play soccer as opposed to some of these teams that kick the ball and have big dudes run after it, which is so boring to play against and play with. The soccer part was so much easier and that made the cultural and educational shift a little bit easier.”
Connors compared the St. Louis vibe to that of East Asia: friendly and caring. Of course, acclimating to St. Louis social life was simplified by having 26 built-in friends. In particular, the five friends he lives with helped him feel like one of 27, not the one in 27.
“Not being alone was a huge benefit because I wouldn’t be thinking about Tokyo as much as I probably would have if I hadn’t come on a team,” Connors said. “These are guys that didn’t care about my background, and not ‘didn’t care,’ but didn’t care about if I was Japanese or if I was American. They took me in for who I was and that was something that I really, really appreciated and needed at the time.”
“I didn’t want to be treated differently. I didn’t want to be that international kid on the team, because that’s so dumb. I didn’t want to have that label on me. These guys treated me like any other kid. I think that…made me forget that I was an international student at all.”
Yet there are times it is exceedingly obvious Connors is different than his teammates, and he does wish others would be more conscious of diversity on campus.
“These dudes are super white; they didn’t know a kid like me existed before,” Connors said. “Everything about me is so half-and-half that it doesn’t make sense to some people. The first time I was talking to my mom on my phone in Japanese was the first time they’ve heard me speak Japanese. They’re like, ‘Holy s—, you’re a totally different person.’”
“My friends definitely know who I am as a person and my values but it’s hard for them to––I can talk about Tokyo all I want but they won’t really get it until they visit.”
Connors, of course, had to make cultural adjustments, too. Back home, he’d hear of police or mass shootings on the news but was generally unaffected because of distance. But in St. Louis, those events became shockingly real. He also quickly learned to be more sensitive to political, racial and religious issues that permeate American society.
“What I said and what I did affected or might not have affected someone, but it definitely caused a reaction from somebody else that I wouldn’t have expected from anybody back home,” Connors said. “That was a really good lesson for me, especially at a school like Wash. U. where people aren’t afraid to say what they want to say. So if you do say something that people don’t agree with, they’re going to tell you that.”
While international athletes are a rarity, Connors said it would be difficult for Wash. U. or any program to change that. Doing so would require rationing a ton of resources internationally, which would be especially hard for a Division III school. For his part, Connors spent the summer working in admissions, where he had the chance to help others like him understand his Wash. U. experience directly.
“I had one student…she went to a Hong Kong international school and she had the exact same concerns I had coming in,” Connors said. “Do people here get it, your background? And I told her no. It’s hard for sure. But if you’re willing to take the time and have your friends take the time to really get who you are and where your background is then it’ll be a lot easier than expecting them to know already.”
For now, Connors is eager to end his longest streak away from home at seven months. While he was busy making friends and settling in freshman year, he’s used to Wash. U. now––and is ready to get back to Japan.
“Right now I’m only thinking about home and it’s really, really sucked,” Connors said. “I just—I really want to be home.”
Straight out of “Freaky Friday,” Albaum may have gotten mixed up somewhere along the way. Born and raised in Toronto, the hockey capital of the world, Albaum managed to choose as his sport football, America’s macho pastime.
“I like to best equate the Canadian high school hockey player with the Texas high school football player,” Albaum said.
“I did love picking up a stick and a pair of skates and doing that in gym class, but at least from my father’s influence, it was always baseball and football,” Albaum said. “I fell in love with both of those sports immediately, trying to juggle them as best as I could. Then, once eighth grade came around, my passion for football was incredible so that’s the route I wanted to continue with.”
“Maybe it has to do with the fact that the Maple Leafs haven’t had the greatest success. My dad was born in 1963 and the last the Leafs have won the Stanley Cup was in 1967.”
Albaum considered choosing a college in his native country, but ultimately felt that the experience would be homogeneous with that of his high school. So he embarked stateside on the most thorough of searches: 36 schools, canvassing academics, athletic opportunity and post-graduate prospects. Though his web was wider, like Connors, Wash. U. wasn’t on the radar at first; after scouring the U.S. News & World Report, it absolutely was.
A recruiting service, Next College Student Athlete, enabled Albaum to post highlights, statistics and measurements, as well as communicate with coaches. While American high school coaches send film on their players’ behalf, Albaum had to take the initiative to reach out himself. He started a dialogue with head coach Larry Kindbom and offensive line assistant coach Brian Allen and from there, it was just a matter of being admitted academically.
While his approach was different from Connors’s, the ends were the same: Albaum fell in love and narrowed his options to one, applying early decision.
“I’m a big proponent of feel and fit,” Albaum said. “Something just felt right on this campus. Everyone was so warm and welcoming. I could really sense that there was this feeling that I could spend the next four years of my life here.”
In fact, Albaum feels that his expectations have been exceeded, especially as it relates to his status as an international student within the larger University community.
“I think the atmosphere and the aura on campus is one that is welcoming of students from all walks of life, from all bounds, be it racial diversity, ethnic, religious, socioeconomic,” Albaum said. “That also allows me to participate in whatever I choose during my college experience and just meet so many people who are welcoming of me with a smile on their face and want to see me succeed along with them.”
Unlike Connors’s transition, Albaum’s certainly demanded assimilation to the U.S. version of the sport. Canadian rules include a longer and wider field and bigger end zones with goalposts at the front. Luckily for Albaum, he didn’t have to move the goalposts too much––on the front lines, the job remains the same.
“It’s block who you’re supposed to and try to get in other people’s way,” Albaum said.
If anything has been missing in Albaum’s career, it’s been playing time. At 5 feet, 7 inches tall and 210 pounds, he’s smaller in stature than his peers and has spent most of his time at Wash. U. playing junior varsity, finally making a varsity appearance this season. But Albaum recognizes the team nature of the sport and doesn’t regret his decision to take his talents to the Lou.
“I came into Wash. U. with what I think was a good understanding of where my body and my skills fit in athletically to most atmospheres,” Albaum said. “Of course, there are definitely frustrating moments where you feel that perhaps you could have been out there on the field and succeeded, but at the same time, I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity and know that had I not come to Wash. U., I might not necessarily have ever had the chance to play four more years of football. That to me would have definitely been devastating.”
Off the field, he didn’t necessarily struggle to acclimate culturally––Toronto is analogous to New York and other major U.S. cities. In the classroom, his parents’ support of his studies (majors in English Literature and French) made life all the less stressful.
“I’m so grateful that I had parents who allowed me to study what I wanted rather than forcing me in a certain direction to where they felt it may have lent itself to a more hirable field,” Albaum said.
Albaum agreed with Connors that there likely isn’t a realistic actionable plan to increase the international athlete figure. Instead, he said that there isn’t a substantial difference between himself and non-varsity athletes and that athletics are just another realm students can seek out should they be interested.
“Even though I am a student-athlete, we’re fully integrated into the campus and into campus life,” Albaum said. “Aside from the fact that I choose to spend a lot of my time playing football and representing Wash. U. in an athletic domain, there really isn’t much that separates my life from that of a non-student-athlete.
“I think a lot of it does go on the onus of the student to find opportunities.”
One of Albaum’s great passions and its manifestations––and a major reason he chose Wash. U.—closed Saturday, Nov. 10, when the Bears beat Carroll University at Francis Field, 44-6.
“It’s incredibly nerve-wracking and I’m sad to see that this might be the last time that I ever strap up and play football again.”
“I hated it. In the beginning, I would always want it to rain so I wouldn’t have practice.”
Bernardo Neves, one of Wash. U.’s most decorated tennis players, hated tennis. Most athletes will wax poetic about their passion for the game, but not Neves—he hated it.
But he loved competing, and he would have stuck with any sport he was good at. It just happens that he was damn good at tennis.
So, while he loathed the apartment tennis lessons he took as a kid, he thrived as those lessons turned into competitions, and those competitions took him from his hometown of Rio de Janeiro to the United States to the world. Now, Neves has a laundry list of accolades: former No. 4 ranking in Brazil, NCAA Championship participant, Intercollegiate Tennis Association National Player to Watch.
But the tennis scene in Brazil has stalled. Gustavo Kuerten won the French Open three times from 1997 to 2001, but the popularity explosion never came. Once Brazilian tennis players reach college, their playing careers often reach a crossroads.
“There’s not really an option to go into college and keep studying and keep playing at the same time,” Neves said. “So, a lot of people end up stopping.”
Neves wanted to keep competing; so, he had a different choice: go pro or go to the U.S. for college. Understandably, he didn’t really know the difference between DI, DII and DIII. Neves set his eye on DI schools, but couldn’t quite find his base.
“All really good academic DI schools have a really good tennis team,” Neves said. “So, all the coaches I was talking to, they’re like, ‘Uh, you might not be good enough to play here. I don’t feel comfortable recruiting you. I’m not going to put a scholarship on you. So, apply normally, and if you get in, you can try to walk on.’”
So, his eye pivoted. Neves researched top engineering schools, cross-checked them with their athletic affiliation and reached out to head coach Roger Follmer. He visited, walked through campus and hit with now-graduated Johnny Wu. Neves was left with one thought: “I have to come here.”
Come here he did, and culture shock it wasn’t. According to Neves, Brazil’s culture is heavily influenced by the U.S. His mother even taught English to 10-year-olds; so, from the time Neves was two, he was sitting on his mom’s lap as she went through class materials, exposing him to the language.
“There’s no glaring differences that make me aware that I’m not home,” Neves said of the U.S.
Tennis, on the other hand, was quite different here and there––in a way that benefited Neves. While his American companions played primarily on hardcourts, as Wash. U. does, they also were able to play for their high school teams. These consistent settings contrasted how Neves was continually forced out of his comfort zone—without a high school team, his competition came from competing in International Tennis Federation tournaments.
“When you start to travel that much, you start to play with people from pretty much all over the world. You’re forced to face completely different styles and different surfaces,” Neves said.
One thing was missing before college, though: a bigger purpose. Playing for himself could only drive Neves so far. Wash. U. gave him the opportunity to compete for his teammates as well.
“Except for my mom, no one really cared if I won or I lost,” Neves said. “Now it’s much more team-focused. I’m still on the court playing by myself, but I’m playing for something a lot bigger than myself. It’s a lot more fun tennis-wise.”
To really play for something bigger than himself though, Neves had to make tangible sacrifices. As talented as he is, his style wasn’t conducive to helping the team be successful.
“I was always really an aggressive player,” Neves said. “At the beginning of my freshman year, my shot selection was very, very poor. I’d be missing shots that I shouldn’t be going for in the first place.”
Follmer and the rest of the team took Neves under their collective wing and reined him in. Neves said that the two-way trust was a necessary part of his maturation.
“There’s nothing really that brings people together more than struggling together…It’s the guys that are most honest to me and the guys that I can be honest with, not only when it comes to tennis, that’s what made me grow as a player,” Neves said. “They just told me, ‘We see how talented you are, and we see how much you can bring to this team. But if you keep playing like that, missing these crazy shots, you’re not going to be a part of the lineup.’ I really took that to heart.”
Neves cares about heart, and he sees it in the rest of Wash. U.’s community.
“I was never really close friends with anyone in my high school––I felt that no one really cared about anything,” Neves said. “Coming to Wash. U. and being surrounded by people that are trying to achieve something every day is really revolutionary to me.”
Things don’t always go according to plan. Imagine, for example, accepting a job in Australia and signing a four-year lease on an apartment—only to leave the job after a year.
That’s the situation Hamish McGregor finds himself in. For every Connors or Albaum, there is a McGregor, a guard from Sydney who made the 9,057-mile decision only to find himself off the roster before his sophomore campaign.
Like Connors, McGregor was moderately familiar with the United States before beginning his college hunt due to family in the states. His mom’s family, originally from Sri Lanka, landed all over the map: two uncles in Los Angeles, two in Dallas and cousins in Washington D.C., among others. Because Australia’s summer and winter are flipped, McGregor first visited during his 10th grade summer in December, January and February.
“That was also the point where I was like, I could see myself living somewhere here,” McGregor said. “I really liked the culture here and I think there’s a lot more opportunity and stuff to do here.”
Every two years, McGregor’s high school basketball team would take a tour of the U.S. on holiday, allowing players to traverse the country and gain exposure. In fact, during his senior year trip, he played against someone in Texas who would eventually become his Wash. U. teammate.
Unfamiliar with the U.S. college application process, however, McGregor ran into some road bumps at first. His career advisor wasn’t particularly helpful, but more urgently, his initial basketball and standardized test expectations set him back.
“I was under the impression that I could find a bad Division I school in terms of basketball and just email the coach and send him my highlights and it would be all fine,” McGregor said. “I took my SATs but I had heard that it was all multiple choice and general knowledge stuff, so I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t need to study for this.’”
“I had applied to all these schools and was emailing coaches but none of them were getting back to me, which was to be expected, now I realize, for a Division I school. I was like, ‘What the hell is going on?’”
Those problems added another layer to McGregor’s already-non-traditional path. His dad wasn’t going to send him to just any American school—he was very focused on rankings—so the entire application cycle was for naught. McGregor would have to matriculate about a year and a half later than typical. That ended up offering him some humorous memories once he made it to Wash. U., though.
“At one point last year I’d turned 20 and then a girl on my floor, months later, just turned 18,” McGregor said. “I found that pretty funny.”
In the meantime, McGregor adjusted his side-view mirrors. He studied part-time at the University of Sydney, studied for the ACT and locked in on Division III teams. The ones that met his father’s academic standards and his own athletic qualifiers tended to be in the UAA, so he began emailing coaches expressing his interest along with some tape. Not everyone responded, but it was a much higher success rate than the previous year.
Eventually, the choice came down to Wash. U. and its archrival, the University of Chicago. Though his dad leaned Chicago, McGregor’s best friend’s father—who he considers a second dad—helped him decide that Wash. U. was the best fit for him, then convince McGregor’s dad of that intuition.
Once McGregor arrived in St. Louis, his basketball experience was rocky. In high school, he’d play once a week for a total of 10 games; the Red and Green, meanwhile, practiced six days a week and played 26. His body wasn’t ready for college ball as a freshman, and he played exclusively junior varsity.
As year one winded down, things came to a head. A major factor in McGregor’s decision had been his interaction with the coaching staff. Now, head coach Mark Edwards was retiring after 37 years at the helm, and the new hire, Pat Juckem, was cutting the roster from 24 to 16 and eliminating the JV program. McGregor, with a balky knee and not enjoying the game quite as much, he called it quits.
But McGregor has no regrets about joining Wash. U., despite dropping one of the reasons for his decision. He enjoys studying computer science and has established friendships with his former teammates. Now, according to McGregor, Wash. U. has only a single paramount shortcoming, something that many students could likely appreciate.
“I live five minutes from the beach, so it’s definitely been weird being here, landlocked and having no water, anywhere, especially during the summer, because that’s all I do,” McGregor said.