Pair of Gophers swimmers adjusting to new culture, atmosphere at the U

Life might be different in Sweden and Japan, but they’re adjusting.

by Nick Gerhardt

Travelling to a foreign country often leaves someone feeling like a fish out of water, but for two Minnesota swimmers that sentiment has subsided with the help of their coaches, teammates and others.

When junior Yuen Kobayashi and freshman Emilia Nilsson decided to jump the pond to swim for the Gophers they had no idea how much they would come to rely upon the help of others.

Kobayashi grew up in Japan and swam for the Mission Viejo Nadadores Swim Team in California for five months during her senior year of high school. While at Mission Viejo, Kobayashi had to make the adjustment to the American lifestyle, something she said was very difficult.

“The first time I stayed was around three-and-a-half weeks and that was really stressful, that was very hard for me,” she said. “People helped me out but I felt like I could speak some English but they spoke so fast and I wasn’t used to native speakers and different accents.”

Although the first introduction to a new culture caused some concern for Kobayashi, she found a compatriot at Minnesota.

Nao Ikeda, Gophers volleyball director of operations, also grew up in Japan.

“We talked right away with Nao when Yuen was coming here,” co-head coach Terry Nieszner said. “She’s been very helpful with Yuen.”

A strong relationship developed between the two based upon both being Japanese athletes.

“I was very, very excited when I heard she was coming,” Ikeda said.

The assimilation still took time for Kobayashi because in Japanese culture, people don’t communicate their problems to others as much as Americans do and Kobayashi had trouble seeking out help.

“In America you have to say how you feel and she wasn’t very good about expressing herself,” Ikeda said.

Teammates eased the tension by helping Kobayashi without her having to ask.

“I’m from Japan so I don’t talk to them about my problems, but they offered me help,” Kobayashi said.

Ikeda, herself, went through the cultural adjustment in the 1980s as a volleyball player at New Mexico and began talking to Kobayashi frequently.

“I helped her find Japanese food and we speak Japanese whenever she wants to vent or say hi,” Ikeda said.

Kobayashi will attend volleyball games while Ikeda will watch Kobayashi compete at meets.

“It’s always nice to know someone cares about me since my parents are so far away,” Kobayashi said.

Nilsson moved from Sweden to swim for the Gophers and found herself in a similar situation as Kobayashi.

Nilsson sent an e-mail to coach Kelly Kremer expressing interest in attending Minnesota.

Kremer, whose wife is Swedish, saw potential in Nilsson and offered her an official visit, a rare occurrence for international athletes.

“We brought Emilia in for a visit, which we generally don’t do with international students, and we did it because for a lot of Swedes, this feels like home. We brought her in so she could feel that,” Kremer said.

Nilsson said she e-mailed other coaches but decided on the Gophers because of the area’s similarity to Sweden.

“When I came here and saw the campus it felt good,” Nilsson said. “I’m used to this weather and I didn’t know if I wanted sunshine all the time. I think I would get bored, it’s nice to have spring and fall.”

Nilsson and her roommates shared a bond immediately when they went shopping for furniture.

“She loves IKEA. Our apartment is IKEA-ized. Whenever she’s feeling lonely we tell her to look at the cup,” freshman roommate Molly Belk joked.

The language barrier has certainly affected both Kobayashi and Nilsson but junior teammate Meredith McCarthy has edited their papers to make sure they sound grammatically correct.

“Anything I don’t know they explain,” Nilsson said.

With teammates buoying them, Nilsson and Kobayashi have been able to academically keep their heads above water while acclimating themselves to a new culture.