Iowa's Division-I international athletes adjusting to new reality amid coronavirus uncertainty
As much as Paula Valino Ramos yearns for the smiling faces and familiar scenes of her hometown in northwestern Spain, the Iowa women’s basketball player knows she’s safer where she is.
Ramos, one of nearly 150 international athletes spread across Iowa’s four Division I universities this academic year, is entrenched in Iowa City for the immediate future and beyond amid the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. Plans to travel home after a halted basketball season evaporated once Spain closed its land borders on March 16, eliminating any guarantee Ramos could return to the U.S. if she left.
Pair that uncertainty with Spain’s COVID-19 issues and it makes sense why Ramos stayed put: The nation surpassed Italy last weekend as the most-infected European country and has more reported deaths than the United States, despite a seventh of the population.
“If I was home right now,” Ramos said, “I’d be on complete lockdown.”
It’s difficult enough for Americans rooted at home to find comfort and normalcy in this unprecedented time, even harder for the state’s top-flight international athletes adjusting to a new reality on the fly.
In some cases, entire rosters are spread across the globe months earlier than expected — all having to account for online schooling in their own setting. Several, like Ramos, are grounded stateside or elsewhere, unable to reach home.
Although the initial coronavirus chaos regarding season cancellations and academic alterations has subsided, the future reveals little clarity for these players abroad. Each country is handling the disease its own way, making it difficult to line up players’ timeframes to again have unimpeded global movement.
“We do have people from all over the world,” said Iowa swimming and diving head coach Marc Long, who has 13 foreign athletes between his men’s and women’s teams. “But this is one thing where we’re all in this together. This is certainly something worldwide.
“I will say with a lot of international kids — just in moving here — they’re risk-takers and very driven people. So I think they’ve always had a big-picture view of things.”
Hawkeye aquatics are a microcosm of the state’s international flavor, which is heavily clustered in non-revenue sports primarily.
Take Iowa State, where the current women’s golf and women’s tennis rosters are entirely abroad competitors. Thirteen players combine to represent nine countries and five continents. Or at Drake, which leaned globally in recruiting almost 90% of its nine-man roster. From England and Sweden to Cyprus and New Zealand, these Bulldogs — four of whom are freshmen — will finish this semester and beyond from several different time zones.
That’s including two players unable to reach their final destination. Sophomore Evan Fragistas, a Virginia Tech transfer originally from Athens, Greece, is staying in Virginia now with family friends after unsuccessfully trying to get back across the pond, head coach Davidson Kozlowski said. Same unfortunate luck for freshman Matija Matic, who was forced to stay with extended family in London upon trying to reach his home country of Cyprus.
“These countries weren’t even seeing the effects of the coronavirus just yet, but (Fragistas’ and Matic’s) countries were taking very strong, precautionary measures. Cyprus and Greece both had military in the streets, and you weren’t able to go and walk around,” Kozlowski said. “Mandatory isolation for two weeks if you did return.
“So Evan is staying here (in the U.S.) indefinitely with family friends until things clear up and he can return home, which is not known. And same with Matija — his plan was to go to London for a few weeks, but England has shut everything down. So he’s there indefinitely too.”
Long can relate to the ambiguity. His rosters accounted for nearly a quarter of the Hawkeyes’ total international competitors for 2019-20 — and while many have reached familiar territory, obstacles moving forward remain significant.
“We’re concerned about their well-being, mentally and physically,” Long said, “and with school started back up (following spring break), we have some people — say you’re back in Australia — you’re getting up maybe in the middle of the night to attend a class. These are things they’re adjusting to.
“And we’re fortunate that we work with a very driven group of students, as well, so if they’ve got to get up in the middle of the night — they’re doing it. I’ve been really proud of how resilient these athletes have been.”
Dave Paulsen has a similar assessment. Although the Northern Iowa track and field coach reported no travel abnormalities from his two rosters, other than one international athlete remaining in Cedar Falls to continue medical treatment, Paulsen recognizes the mental strain this turbulent time can cause.
That’s why he and his staff are stressing communication and togetherness, more so than the intricacies of a now-extended track offseason. Of course, maneuvering from all parties is required to make things work. It could be guys like freshman hurdler Jack Sumners (England) and junior runner Sven Van Den Bergh (Belgium) must adjust to drastic time differences. Or Paulsen and his assistants organizing more personal Zoom meetings to accommodate a large track roster.
Squads are trying to move forward with the student athletes’ well-being at the forefront.
“Giving the international guys the ability to process this on their own time frame is really important,” said Paulsen, who — in addition to the European duo — has athletes from the Bahamas, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and Canada on his two rosters.
“We’re under no huge rush to have these kids working out on a consistent basis. You obviously don’t want them to get super out of shape, but I think you’re naive if you just throw them workouts and think they’re going to pick it up as is. So communicating that we still have goals as a team going forward for next year — and we’ve got to keep those in mind — but we’re trying to keep that sense of community and family in place.”
Harrowing as it may be, all these international athletes can do is wait like the rest of us. The bulk of them have eligibility remaining and plan on using it, whether on campuses in Iowa City, Ames, Cedar Falls or Des Moines, even if their U.S. return date is firmly unknown.
Some, like Ramos, are hoping for eventual clarity in the other direction. The Hawkeyes center, who was set to graduate in May and go back to Spain shortly after, now has no idea when it’ll be safe to visit her home country again. Patience is required in these situations all the same.
“Just trying to keep up with everyone at home is probably the most stressful part now,” Ramos said. “Calling my family and making sure they’re healthy. I don’t think going home in May is going to be much of an option at this point. All borders are closed. You’ll get a fine if you go out in the street.
“So right now, it’s just being calm and waiting to see what happens.”
Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.