From left: Tatyana Maltseva (Kazakhstan), Adeniyi Amadou (France), and Pawel Glowiak (Poland)
Walk the halls of Memorial Field House some days and you’d swear you’re walking the halls of the U.N. Athletes from the four corners of the world frequent IUP’s athletic hub. Swimmers from Poland, Israel, and Canada; field hockey players from the Netherlands; a pitcher from Curaçao; basketball players from Mozambique and France; and a distance runner from far-off Kazakhstan are included among the twenty-one foreign students listed on varsity rosters for the 2007-2008 school year.
IUP coaches happily roll out a welcome mat for these international visitors, who typically are earnest, industrious, and self-possessed, qualities that augur success both in their athletic endeavors and in the classroom.
“They’re eager to make the most of this opportunity,” said swimming coach Chris Villa, who counts on Canadians Casey Beck, Vanessa Iacobucci, and Brittany Watkins, Poland’s Pawel Glowiak, and Israel’s Galit Regev. “They’re academically driven, because they don’t take their education for granted. They’re mature, and a lot of times, like Galit, they’re a little bit older, too. She was in the military for a year and a half because every Israeli citizen serves in the military. So there are big advantages.”
Consequently, IUP coaches take their cue from a certain Disney song—“It’s a Small World after All”—and scour the globe for talent. That wasn’t the case a quarter-century ago, when the notion of recruiting foreign athletes was, well, foreign. The landscape has changed radically since 1984, when IUP athletic director Frank Condino first arrived as an assistant football coach.
“I couldn’t really say for sure, because I was involved with football then, but I wouldn’t think there was much of an international presence in that era,” Condino said. “If we checked the rosters I don’t know what we’d find, but I’d be surprised if there was much of a foreign presence at all.”
The first import to make a splash was, fittingly, a swimmer. Emilio Abreu finished second in the 400 individual medley at the NAIA meet in 1975 and 1976, earned All-America honors both years, represented his native Paraguay in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, and was inducted into the IUP Athletic Hall of Fame in 1999.
Two foreign athletes of more recent vintage—Canadian Luci Plaxton and Petra Adamkova of the Czech Republic—also excelled in the pool. Plaxton finished second three times at the NCAA meet and earned fifteen All-America honors; Adamkova was twice a national runner-up and collected fourteen All-America honors. Small wonder then that IUP coaches cast their nets wide, bent on landing a potential non-American All-American.
They’ve reeled in recruits from lands as distant as Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic in Asia that Tatyana Maltseva calls home. The sophomore cross country and track standout crosses ten time zones when traveling to IUP from Almaty, a city of 1.2 million located 200 miles from the western border of China. Getting to campus requires an epic journey even Odysseus would find daunting.
“It was really scary coming to the United States,” said Maltseva, who transferred to IUP after a year at Arkansas. “Really scary. When I went to Arkansas there were a lot of times when I was depressed, and I didn’t want to do anything. I just wanted to go home.”
Marcia Mpfumo can relate. The junior basketball player from Mozambique’s capital of Maputo, an Indian Ocean seaport of 1.1 million, was slow to adjust after she enrolled at Frank Phillips Junior College in Texas.
“When I first came in 2005, I didn’t speak any English at all,” said Mpfumo, whose last trip home devolved into a wearying marathon journey that included two nights spent sleeping in airports. “I didn’t know if I was going to make it. Some days I just wanted to pack and go back to Mozambique.”
Glowiak’s introduction to the U.S. wasn’t nearly as jarring, owing partly to the fact that two former high school teammates—Marek Malopolski and Bartosz Ostrowski—were already swimming for IUP when he arrived. The junior from Gorzów quickly adapted to his new surroundings, earning All-America honors in the 100 backstroke as a freshman.
“It’s definitely been a positive experience for me here,” said Glowiak, who repeated as an All-American last year. “If I had a choice I would probably do it again. First of all, in swimming I’m getting better and better every year. And in school I’m getting a good education.”
While IUP’s imports obviously come to learn, they invariably wind up teaching as well. Maltseva and her fellow foreign students cheerfully clear up the many misconceptions Americans harbor about their home nations.
“If people ask me about my country, I’m really in favor of it—I love to tell them more about Kazakhstan,” she said. “A lot of people know absolutely nothing about it, which is unfortunate. They maybe heard about it in the movie Borat, but it’s not like that at all. Some people think we all live in fields, in tents, with animals running around. My city is almost like a New York. It’s a very modern city.”
Mpfumo also cringes when she encounters Americans who have scant knowledge of her southeastern African homeland or are unable to differentiate between Mozambique and other nations on the continent.
“They watch what’s going on in Africa, not like a specified country,” she said. “So they think whatever’s happening in Africa is happening in Mozambique.” Clueless, perhaps, that Maputo is as far away from the opposite corner of the continent as Indiana is from Rome.
Even Glowiak is staggered by how little some of his American classmates know about Poland.
“Everybody’s asking me, ‘Do you guys have fast-food restaurants? Do you have cars?’” he said, shaking his head. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, we have fast-food restaurants. We have cars.’ It’s not like a different world. It’s just a different place.”
Over the years, American-born IUP students have received a much-needed education from athletic ambassadors whose birthplaces run the gamut from A (Argentina) to Z (Zimbabwe), with a host of countries between: Bosnia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Costa Rica, Denmark, Germany, Honduras, Iceland, India, Iran, Japan, New Zealand, Nigeria, Peru, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Serbia, Sierra Leone, Slovenia, Thailand, and Trinidad. The one common denominator, regardless of national origin? Few foreign athletes receive personal visits from recruiters. Budgets don’t allow for international travel, so coaches adopt a frugal approach in courting prospects. Fred Joseph, for example, added Scotland’s Gavin Smith and England’s Leo Acklin to his golf team with the help of an acquaintance.
“I got them through a relationship I developed with Loren Kelly, who used to play golf for Coastal Carolina—he currently lives in Glasgow,” Joseph said. “I keep in touch with him, either by phone or e-mail. He’ll make a recommendation and if I have an opening, I’ll pursue that.”
Of course, it’s not always a tip or a phone call that brings a foreign athlete to IUP. Sometimes it’s just plain luck. Baseball coach Jeff Ditch discovered Canadians Jamie Smith and Kyle Stryker barely a mile from his office door, playing for the touring Ontario Blue Jays high school all-star team in a game at Owen Dougherty Field.
Smith and Stryker are now part of a sizable contingent of imports on campus, where the field house seems to rival the U.N. as a hub of international activity. And don’t be surprised if the influx of foreign athletes continues.
For in one respect at least, IUP coaches are in agreement with Disney: It’s a small world after all.