Trips overseas give U athletes uniqueperspectives

Brian Stensaas

On a typical Tuesday afternoon inside a stuffy Williams Arena, Minnesota men’s basketball point guard Ben Johnson works preseason drills with coach Mike Petersen.

Across 4th Street, men’s hockey defenseman Keith Ballard is taking part in the first day of captain’s practice at Mariucci Arena.

Three hundred sixty four days after the most deadly terrorist strike on American soil, the two were doing exactly what President George W. Bush had urged after the attack: going on with their normal routines.

During the past year, both have ventured outside America’s borders to play their respective sports. Johnson was a member of the Big Ten Foreign Tour team in August while Ballard played for the United States Junior National team in January.

Both took their experiences to heart.

“Looking back, I realize how lucky I was to pull the U.S.A. jersey over my head and represent the country,” Ballard said. “It will be a story I can tell someday. I didn’t go to war or anything, but being abroad with a team of other Americans competing for one thing so close after Sept. 11, I definitely had some added pride.”

Ballard spent the majority of Christmas break practicing and competing in the championships, held in the Czech Republic.

Johnson toured parts of Germany, Belgium, France and Amsterdam this summer before returning to campus for the beginning of classes.

The transfer from Northwestern said he enjoyed his time in Europe but was happy to be back on his home turf.

“A lot of people here take what we have for granted,” he said. “Much of the racism over there isn’t black and white or anything like that. It’s what language you speak or where your parents are from. There’s so many different groups.”

“You could get to be friends with a guy only to find out that you’re not allowed to hang out because your family beliefs are different. It’s unfortunate.”

Neither said they encountered any sort of bad reception while on tour. That wasn’t the case for Lindsey Whalen.

The Minnesota women’s basketball guard spent part of the summer in Brazil with the United States World Championship for Young Women’s team.

Against the Brazilian national squad, the Americans were booed. There were also 10 armed guards on the railing leading to the court. But she never felt threatened.

“Brazil is not too hostile,” Whalen said, “but it was a little weird. We didn’t really know what their customs were and just used common sense. The fans were pretty much good to us. When they booed, it just felt like I was playing at Wisconsin or something.”

Through pride or jeers, the three are lucky. They at least got the chance to make the trips and compete. For the members of the men’s WCHA All-Star team, that wasn’t the case.

A planned summer trip to Italy initially began going sour in January when reports of al-Qaida activity surfaced in Venice, the trip’s meeting point. The red flag was raised higher about a month before the trip when eight men were arrested in Milan for providing false identification papers for members of the terrorist network.

State departments in both Washington and Italy wouldn’t instruct the team whether not to go through with the trip. The USOC Chief of Security – Minnesota State, Mankato graduate Larry Buendorf – wouldn’t use the word “warning” but had several serious discussions with the league.

All left the decision to the WCHA, which weighed several options including flying into different cities.

In the end, a four-person executive committee voted to cancel the trip.

“We used our heads rather than our hearts,” commissioner Bruce McLeod said. “I’m disappointed we canceled the trip. We can’t have terrorists ruling our lives. But at the same time there’s a responsibility involved and that’s what it really got down to.”

“I hate to say this, but if something did happen, the liability would have been astronomical.”

The league does plan a trip this coming summer and is fully confident it will go on as planned.

It will be just one more opportunity for young athletes to experience the heightened pride in playing for their country.

Brian Stensaas welcomes comments at [email protected]