In late March of sophomore year I walked into my coach’s office, plopped myself down on his royal blue coach, crossed my legs, and giddily told him about my plan to study abroad in Perugia, Italy during fall semester of my junior year. He looked at me perplexed and replied “Is there skiing there? If not you should go to New Zealand. Our team has been very successful in the past studying abroad in New Zealand.” Don’t get me wrong—my coach is one of the most supportive coaches on the Division I Alpine Ski Racing circuit, but he firmly believed that I was making a decision that would greatly affect my preseason training, and he was correct.
Admittedly, I did not fully understand how difficult it was going to be to study abroad as a Division I athlete and, admittedly, my coach did. But when he tried to explain to me the challenges I would face studying abroad, all I heard was another outsider trying to influence the study abroad experience I wanted for myself. Being the stubborn person I am, I smiled and told my coach my mind had been made up.
NCAA Alpine Ski Racing, for those who are not familiar with the sport, begins official preseason on November 1st. Before November, our team has practice in the weight room or out on the field doing polymetrics and agilities six days a week, beginning the first day of school. Our season ends in early April or whenever the snow melts. We have an extremely long season with an emphasis on the fall for adequate preparation; case in point: going abroad until late December is not highly recommended for my sport. But as an athlete, I had been making progress since my freshman year in the college circuit, and I had developed strong self-motivation in terms of training. At the time, I believed that was all it would take to be successful as an athlete abroad.
Flash-forward to Fall Semester Junior Year:
Perugia, Italy was everything I had hoped for and more. It is a small, university town situated on a hill just south of Tuscany. Geographically, it’s perfectly located, north of Rome and south of Florence—right in the center of the boot. It was easy to travel to neighboring countries such as Switzerland, France, Croatia, and Spain on the weekends. The town itself is comprised of layers of Etruscan and Roman buildings, entwined in aqueducts that serve as walkways, and it’s full of hidden alleyways of pizzarias and lively bars. Perugia is large enough to keep eighty American students well occupied at night with spirited pubs and discoteche, but small enough that students can’t get by knowing just English and ignoring cultural differences. I lived in a small apartment on the top floor of an ancient palazzo, or mansion, which overlooked the hillside town of Assisi and the rolling hills of Umbra. I was living the dream I had envisioned in my head and strived for months ago during the study abroad application process.
Within a week, I discovered that the majority of Perugians don’t prioritize time at the gym on their daily to-do list. My professors chuckled when I inquired about gym membership discounts and all the students who were initially interested seemed to filter down to just one or two. I quickly realized that I only had two options for gyms: one was affiliated with a local Italian university, but it was small and did not offer all the lifting equipment that I needed, including a squat rack and free weights; the other was much bigger, but it was a metro ride away and situated deep in the “urban” side of town, where a nineteen-year-old American girl must take precautions walking alone.
It took me over two weeks and multiple butchered Italian conversations with gym owners, athletic trainers, and the Perugian transportation agency to establish a gym membership and a metro pass to get to the gym safely and efficiently. Head coordinators at my school asked me to “keep in touch about how my gym experience goes,” because I was the first student to ever do such a thing. Although I was frustrated and perplexed as to how I could be the only one who had ever done such a thing, I was ecstatic that I made it happen. I traveled to the gym daily, working in trips around my class schedule. Coincidently, the metro I used to access the gym was the same metro used to reach the train station and a discounted grocery store, so I was able to make the most of buying a rather expensive pass.
I was able to travel and workout with my roommate, who also bought a gym membership. When we didn’t travel to and from the gym together, we tried to workout during daylight hours or to call each other when we were headed back home just to be safe. In a maximum of three hours a day, five days a week, I maintained my strength in the weight room and my cardiovascular capacity with the cardio machines offered. I returned to my team in December slightly behind in terms of training on snow because it was impossible to ski in Perugia. But I had mentally prepared myself that I would be slightly behind and I knew that physically I was as strong as ever. With the given circumstances, that was all that I could ask for. I trusted my muscle memory to do the rest. This season, I had a personal record of a top-fifteen race result in the Eastern Region, with one of the two runs being a seventh place. Both my coach and myself were ecstatic; all my hard work had finally paid off.
Because it is nearly impossible to cover all of the suggestions I have for athletes hoping to study abroad, I want to leave my readers with a list of recommendations that I wish I could have had prior to my own experience abroad:
- Be patient. The process of finding and joining a gym can be stressful in foreign countries. Moreover, you must consider transportation and safety, something often taken for granted at home.
- Balance a use of that membership and daily adventures into your workout plan! Decide what needs to be accomplished in the gym and how you can achieve athletic goals in the unexplored world around you (ie. hiking, swimming, running).
- Prepare yourself for cultural differences at the gym. In Italy it isn’t considered impolite to stare. It took many weeks to get accustomed to men and women staring at me in the weight room because, generally, Italian women do not lift weights.
- Find a friend to motivate you. Sticking to a team program will not be as difficult if someone does it with you. Who knows, maybe they will push you to a new level!
- Just because it hasn’t been done before does not mean it is impossible. I had many professors and locals telling me that my time and effort was not worth it. I had to constantly remind myself of my expectations at home.
- Accept the fact that you will return to your team in “different” shape than if you had stayed home. By “different” shape, I do not mean worse shape, but by choosing to study abroad, what you gain athletically will be different than what your teammates gain. This does not mean you are less prepared for your season than they are; you simply took a different approach.
- Use everything you gained abroad to your advantage in your sport, whether it be independence, worldliness, confidence, or more self-motivation. You’ll be amazed how much you improve mentally on and off the field.
|Brittney Ziebell is a junior at Colby College majoring in English and minoring in Administrative Sciences. Brittney is a Division I, Alpine Ski Racer who studied abroad in the small town of Perugia, Italy during fall 2012. She has a strong passion for studio art and calling any place she can “home” at least once in her life. Check out her Spotlight to learn more about her experiences abroad!|