Oberlin Blogs

Athletics while Abroad

December 25, 2016

Lilah Drafts-Johnson ’18

As a collegiate athlete, one of my biggest concerns about studying abroad was being able to keep up with my training. I ended my sophomore year season on a very high note and was nervous about the time I might miss by studying abroad. For the student-athlete thinking about studying abroad: I say do it. With less than a month before my season starts back in the States, I feel about as prepared as I would if I had spent the off-season with my team, and the experiences I've had from being abroad outweigh the milliseconds slower I might run this year. But if you're still unsure, here's some anecdotal evidence:

Through the coach of my study abroad program's soccer team, I was recommended to train with a group of runners called "El Pacifico" - a club team of mostly sprinter and middle distance runners originally based out of the port city of San Antonio but now centered in Santiago. The club is run by a lovely married couple - la Tere and el Luis - who were both prolific mid-distance runners themselves during their racing careers. My first day of practice, I met up with la Vane, who walked me to the track and introduced me to the rest of the team. She was so friendly and welcoming to me despite my nerves and slowly stammered sentences, and I immediately felt comfortable with the group. From that first day, things only got better.

Although I often did different workouts than the other runners because I had a regimen provided by my Oberlin coach, working out with a group made a huge difference. I was always motivated and excited to come to practice. Practice was my favorite part of the day, and on some days this was the only time I felt fully at home in Santiago. There is something so beautifully comforting in the rigid structure of track and field. No matter where in the world you are, 400 meters is 400 meters and hard work is always appreciated on the track. Stepping on the track always calms me - in the streets of Santiago, I may be a bumbling extranjera, but en la pista, my body knows exactly what to do.

Another advantage to working out with the team was that it provided a "safe space" for me to practice my Spanish. I'm often nervous talking to new people in Spanish because of my lack of confidence in the language, but the runners of El Pacifico were so patient with me that I found myself talking more than I would in my classes or with my friends from the university. I also found that there were a lot of people in Chile that had a habit of talking with me as if I were a small child -- using simple sentences and explaining very basic concepts to me. With my faltering sentences and limited vocabulary, I imagine it's easy to forget that there is a fully functioning 20-year-old somewhere in my brain. But on the track, it was different. My teammates always talked to me like a friend and I felt fully comfortable to make mistakes or ask questions about the things I didn't understand. I was also surrounded by a beautiful blend of accents - el Aniol and la Marina hail from Catalonia and carry the slight "s" lisp, el Dani and his tranqui acento de Venezuela, and of course my dear Chileans with their "si po, weon!" and "bacán." This has resulted with me picking up a confusing blend of a US/Spanish/Chilean accent that throws people off when they try to guess where I'm from.

I owe a lot of my amazing experience abroad to this group, especially to the couple that runs the team. They welcomed me into their home and their family, and there were days when I could imagine myself living and training in Chile with them forever. Finding friendships in Chile allowed me to become more fully immersed in my experience and forget the ache of homesickness I felt early on in my trip.

It was a stroke of luck to find this group. Chile's infrastructure in track is very different from ours - there is not a collegiate system and professional careers in sport are only really viable in soccer. As a result, there aren't as many track athletes, and the ones that do run and are in the university are constantly crunched for study time, as the university isn't designed for an extracurricular with such a time commitment. I also run a very specialized race, the 400 hurdles, and you don't find too many people who run that. Despite this, I still managed to stumble upon the best training group for 400 hurdlers in all of Chile. The group of 400 vallistas all run times that would be envied by most of my teammates back home, and one of them has the second fastest time ever recorded in Chile.

On my last day of Chile, I was glumly walking through the Santiago International Airport when the entire team appeared out of nowhere, Chilean flag in hand. They had arranged a surprise goodbye for me and had all signed the flag as a going away gift. It was probably one of the kindest things anyone has ever done for me, and even though I said my goodbyes in a blubbery mess of tears, I left Chile feeling loved and happy. I couldn't have asked for a better goodbye, and I certainly couldn't have asked for better friends. I started running here to keep myself in shape and ended up finding so much more. So again, to Obie student athletes who are thinking about studying abroad, I give this as advice:

1. Talk to your coach and keep up with teammates during your time abroad.
I am lucky enough to have coaches who understand the importance of studying abroad, and understand that I am a student first and athlete second. I never felt any pressure to sacrifice my abroad experience for my sport. Even so, I still think it's important to keep in touch with your coaches, as they can be sources of support and motivation. I also kept a workout log with another teammate who was also studying abroad, but in a different location than me. That created a sense of accountability, and we were also able to commiserate together when it was hard to fit in a workout or when we missed our team.

In all-caps. I was very nervous about getting injured while abroad. Working through the health care system in English is difficult enough; I didn't want to even have to try to navigate it in Spanish. Be more careful than usual in even the simplest of physical endeavors - my biggest fear was a turned ankle during a hike or walking around in the city. Don't push if something hurts, and make sure you know how to get medications or ice if needed. In my case, I had some hamstring issues early on in my semester, and I wasn't able to treat it fully. I had to accept that I couldn't run at 100% and now that I'm back home, I'm able to attend to what I need. Additionally, I had to adjust to running in a big city -- brightly colored clothes and a little more attention to the road than I usually would in a small Ohio town.

2. Ask your study abroad program about the options for working out or joining a team.
It took me almost two months to find a running group, but only because I was reluctant to ask around at first. Most universities in Chile had workout facilities, but there were also club teams and pickup games available that my study abroad program staff directed me to. Ask questions and take a chance if you're unsure about approaching a group. I've found that people love to share what they love, whether that's running, soccer, or another sport.

3. Take advantage of your surroundings.
Chile is full of mountains and beautiful hikes - and on some days, it felt like a waste to not use them. I occasionally substituted strength workouts for a hilly hike, and I used long runs as an excuse to explore different parts of Santiago. In Spanish, there is a great verb that encapsulates this idea - aprovechar. Literally, it means "to take advantage of" but it also has the connotation of "making the most" out of something. When you're in a new place, it's important to do the things that you might not be able to do on-campus at Oberlin. I dabbled in soccer for a while, which was a fun and different way of staying in shape than I'm used to. Study abroad is all about trying new things - including when you're working out.

4. Remember the end goals.
To some extent, you may have to make a choice about training vs. having your best study abroad experience. I feel like I didn't have to compromise too much of my training, but there will definitely still be an adjustment period when I'm back on campus. That being said: I don't regret anything about my choice to study abroad. Collegiate athletics lasts for four years - the memories, friendships, and knowledge I gained will outlast that. Make a plan, make goals, and remember what is important to you. And if you're headed for Santiago, Chile, let me know. I have some recommendations ☺

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