Sports, a truly universal language

Lingual and cultural barriers have greeted four athletes at the U who hail from Europe; but so have the sports they love.

Nate Gotlieb

As the horn blares before each basketball game at Williams Arena, the Gophers menâÄôs basketball team huddles together and jumps up and down, a final preparation before taking the floor.

Redshirt freshman Oto Osenieks jumps too, his tie flapping with every hop, but he is on the edge of the circle, which may represent how he sometimes feels: like an outsider in a foreign environment. But after a year of constant learning and adjustment, he is closer than ever to accomplishing his dream of playing college basketball in the U.S.

Osenieks is one of a handful of Minnesota athletes who crossed an ocean âÄî and numerous cultural divides âÄî all for the American student-athlete experience.

Reasons for coming

For Osenieks, playing basketball in America was an easy decision.

He traveled to America with his Latvian team three years ago to play against Amateur Athletic Union teams. It was a short trip, but it had long-lasting effects, Osenieks says.

âÄúThatâÄôs when I fell in love with American basketball, so I decided I wanted to come back here,âÄù Osenieks said.

Junior Julian Dehn made the decision to play tennis in America because he wanted an opportunity to combine tennis and an education. In Germany, Dehn felt he had only two options: to try and make a professional career or to quit tennis and focus on his studies.

âÄúWhatever you do for fun is not integrated into school,âÄù Dehn said. âÄúThereâÄôs also not the money available to give students the opportunity like this.âÄù

For Finnish womenâÄôs hockey goalie Noora Räty, the decision was based on the level of play that coming to America provided.

âÄú[The WCHA] is the best league in the world,âÄù Räty said.

Adjusting to the language

After graduating high school in Latvia, Osenieks enrolled last year at Brehm Prep in Carbondale, Ill.

A school renowned for its programs to help international students and students with disabilities, Brehm Prep head coach Aaron Lee said the schoolâÄôs basketball program helps students adjust to college basketball life, because the team plays a college schedule and practices like a college team.

Lee said the first four to five months for most international students are very difficult, but Osenieks came prepared for the challenges.

âÄúFor most international students, the language is the primary barrier,âÄù Lee said. âÄúBut Oto was open to listen and learn.âÄù

Osenieks said that the year helped develop his speaking skills and adjust to the American style of basketball.

While the small classes at Brehm helped him adjust to learning in English, with larger classes at Minnesota this year, he said it can be tougher.

âÄúThereâÄôs a lot of times that I donâÄôt want to ask a question about language to professors, because I donâÄôt want to interrupt,âÄù Osenieks said. âÄúBut I go talk to professors individually, tell them that IâÄôm from a different country so I might have some difficulties.âÄù

While Osenieks, Dehn, Räty and her teammate Mira Jalosuo, also a sophomore from Finland, learned English in school, they all said the English they use here is different than what they were taught back home.

âÄúIn Finland, you are just learning in Finnish what the teacher says how youâÄôre supposed to say [words in English], so the discussion situations are so different,âÄù Jalosuo said.

Aside from speaking with people, adjusting to school in English proved to be tough.

âÄúIn general, going to the lecture and having everything in your second language makes it a little bit more difficult,âÄù Dehn said. âÄú[It] takes some more time at the beginning to learn the stuff.âÄù

Räty said that homework takes an especially long time.

âÄúWhen IâÄôm writing papers âĦ itâÄôs definitely harder,âÄù Räty said. âÄúI know what I want to write in Finnish, but I donâÄôt know what it means in English, so then I have to think twice.âÄù

Jalosuo said that it took a while to get used to speaking English, which proved to be a tough process. âÄúAfter a couple of weeks, I was like, âÄòI canâÄôt focus on anymore English. I donâÄôt want to speak English anymore.âÄôâÄù

Home is where your food is

One of the toughest adjustments to America is the food.

âÄúItâÄôs not healthy, so that was really hard,âÄù Osenieks said. âÄúThereâÄôs some times I remember, after two months here, I just couldnâÄôt eat that food anymore. I wanted my salads and soups.âÄù

Dehn says that the food is something that just takes time to adjust to.

âÄúItâÄôs not that I donâÄôt like American food, but itâÄôs just different, and you have to get used to it,âÄù he said. âÄúOften you miss stuff that you were used to back home that seems normal, but when you get here, you realize how much you like it and that itâÄôs not normal everywhere.âÄù

For Räty, she misses a specific dish that she can only get at home. âÄúWhen I lived at home, my mom cooked me this bread and mozzarella cheese, and she made salad every evening,âÄù Räty said. âÄúThatâÄôs something I donâÄôt get here.âÄù

Coming along

While at times the process has been tough for each of these athletes, they are gradually adjusting and finding success in their temporary home.

Räty and Jalosuo have grown into important roles as sophomores on the womenâÄôs hockey team. Räty, an All-American last season, has been even sharper this season; she leads the WCHA with a .947 save percentage and has eight shutouts in 26 games this season. Jalosuo, a defenseman, has just 10 points, but has improved dramatically, head coach Brad Frost said.

âÄú[Jalosuo] in particular is light-years ahead of where she was last year, as far as her play,âÄù Frost said.

Frost said they are vital to the team not only because of their play but because of what they bring off the ice as well. âÄúThey bring a different culture to our team, which I think is really important,âÄù he said.

Jalosuo said that she feels more comfortable with day-to-day interactions. She uses a translator for class less often than she initially did, and she feels more comfortable talking with people.

âÄúSometimes other people are telling jokes, [and after the joke is over] you figure out what that means, but then itâÄôs over, and you canâÄôt say anything for that,âÄù she said. âÄúNowadays I can joke with them.âÄù

For Osenieks, he is still adjusting to college life. âÄúThere are some days when IâÄôm really upset, and itâÄôs hard,âÄù he said.

During these days, OsenieksâÄô teammates provide him support. He eats dinner with Chris HalvorsenâÄôs family from time to time and went to Colton IversonâÄôs house on Christmas.

However, heâÄôs itching to experience American college basketball, where his former coach thinks he could be a star.

âÄúHeâÄôs the kind of player that could be the face of the program,âÄù Lee said.

Dehn, who has just two more seasons left in college, is just enjoying his last two years of school. HeâÄôs not sure if heâÄôll go pro after college, but heâÄôs not thinking about the decision quite yet.

âÄúThe college life here is exceptional,âÄù he said. âÄúHere on campus thereâÄôs always something to do, and I like that a lot. Being around all the students, it gives me a great opportunity to meet a lot of people from other countries, and it helps you to learn a lot more about other cultures.âÄù