Dec. 18, 2006
When Rebekah Rychvalsky came to Ohio State in 2003, the Sydney, Australia native had never stepped foot in America. Moving thousands of miles from her family was a demanding adjustment, but her place as a Buckeye swimmer helped Rychvalsky feel right at home during the transition.
With her fourth and final season underway in Columbus, Rychvalsky is planning on spending this Christmas thousands of miles away from home again, but in a different direction. She is traveling to teammate Griet Buelen's hometown in Belgium, but the senior swimmer will not be without an important piece of her family during the holiday trip.
For the Ohio State women's swim team, international athletes like Rychvalsky and Buelen have revolutionized the program's success and left a distinct mark on the team's makeup. Senior Gulsah Gunenc left her home in Turkey to join Rychvaslky as a freshman in 2003, while Buelen and Denmark native Linda Lund joined the team the following season. Sophomore Elaine Chan added another cultural element when she came from Hong Kong in 2005.
Now the colorful and diverse group, which experienced the growing pains of the cultural shift together, sees itself just as much of a family as it does a team.
"We experienced things together," said Gunenc. "It was so much fun to be with those kinds of people and to learn from them because you don't feel lonely knowing there are so many girls here from other countries. When you live in a small country, you don't know a lot of other things. You were taught certain ways. But when you meet other people it just opens you up to the world. It's just a great experience to know other people from other cultures."
This summer a large group of the Buckeye swimmers went to Australia to visit some of their past and present teammates from down under, while others traveled Europe to see some of the women who live there. In April, Chan, Buelens and Gunenc traveled to Shanghai to compete for their respective countries in the FINA World Championships.
With five players from other countries, head coach Jeanne Fleck said the Buckeyes' international flavor has been a welcome influence on her team.
"I think it has been awesome. They bring a totally different dynamic in their work ethic, their attitude, just their culture," she said. "We all learn from each other. I knew nothing about Turkey or Hong Kong, so it's really fun to learn about their cultures and learn what's important to them. It's also nice to see them grow from their freshmen years to their senior years."
The Ohio State University is well-known for its universal appeal and the melting pot effect is obvious in its athletics program as well. The Buckeyes boast 20 programs for female athletes and 36 of those student-athletes on those teams come from international backgrounds.
Leaving behind a life of familiarity for the unknown wasn't easy. On top of the typical adjustments to college lifestyle, the women also faced language barriers, culture shock and a different team and coaching style.
When Gunenc came to Ohio State, the Turkish swimmer had her sights set on better competition and a college lifestyle that had room for both swimming and education. When her collegiate career ends after this season, Gunenc will be remembered as an All-American and an Olympian, but getting past her first semester was one of the biggest challenges.
While she enjoys representing her country and setting straight incorrect prejudices about Middle Eastern nationalities, the culture shock of moving from a small European town to a campus of more than 50,000 students was overwhelming.
She joined the team without ever stepping foot on campus or meeting one of her coaches, but the language barrier was the most demanding hurdle for Gunenc to overcome after joining a team of 26 - all of whom spoke English. She went home that winter break and considered leaving Ohio State for good, but Gunenc returned from Turkey with a new focus.
"I still get really funny questions like `Are you allowed to wear swimsuits there?' to `Are there any camels?' But the biggest challenge was the language because I wasn't really good at it," she said. "It was really hard to communicate with people. Even though I could understand them, it was really hard for me to explain myself."
Gunenc survived her freshman season and added the Turkish national record in the 50-meter butterfly to her standards for the 100-meter and 200-meter events, which earned her a spot in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.
Fleck made the trip with her and the experience was one Gunenc says changed her outlook on her athletic career.
"It was just great because it's every athlete's dream to make it there. Once you go there, you just feel really different," she said. "You see all of those successful people and all the people you admire. You're at the same level with them. You're racing with them. It really opened me up to look forward and become one of them because I was so close to them."
Gunenc competed in the 200-yard butterfly at the games, but the sophomore-to-be fell ill after all the travel en route to Athens and couldn't swim at her highest level. She will have at least one more chance to fully live out her Olympic dreams.
Even though Grunenc will round out her OSU career this season, she will stay in school to complete her three degrees. The two-time Academic All-Big Ten selection is studying marketing, human resources and logistics, and hopes to one day work with athletes. But in the meantime, she will continue to train with Fleck for the 2008 Olympics in Bejing.
Although Gunenc dominated the Turkish competition before coming to Ohio State, the Big Ten and NCAA competition was a whole different story. One of Grunenc's most memorable achievements came last year at the NCAA Championships, when she became the Buckeyes' first All-American since 1995 with a seventh-place finish in the 200-yard butterfly. Grunenc sailed to a school-record breaking time of 1:57.78, and the All-America status took on a whole new meaning for her.
"I became an All-American right at a good time because I understood what it meant," she said. "When you come from another country, making it to NCAAs or becoming an All-American doesn't seem like it would mean that much to you as it means to Americans. You don't really know what it is.
"But I was watching the finals, and some of the girls I knew from the World Championships were the fastest American girls. When I was watching them, I thought, I want to be with them in this final, so being an All-American to me means being as good as one of the biggest swimmers in America. It meant a lot, and it meant a lot to Ohio State because it showed how big of a program we have become and how much better we are becoming."
Now in her eighth season as the Buckeyes' head coach, Fleck remembers when she first took over the program and its old six-lane, 25-yard pool. It was easier to draw interest from foreign recruits who hadn't seen Ohio State's out-of-date facilities and its competition around the country.
The catch was that Fleck and her staff did not get to see much of a preview of their incoming talent. Only Lund had even been to the U.S. before, and she was the only international recruit who the coaches made a trip to watch.
In the end, Fleck and OSU came out ahead big for a little risk.
"I've been so lucky. Only one of these girls we went over to visit," Fleck said. "All the others wrote us or called us and that's how we found them. We don't go after a lot of foreign young ladies, but because Ohio State is such a big name in the world, we get a lot of kids and a lot of interest in our program."
The Buckeyes hosted the 2006 Big Ten Championships in their brand new pool at McCorkle Aquatic Pavilion, and everything started coming together. Ohio State jumped three spots from its 2005 team finish to seventh behind six new school records. Gunenc led the Buckeyes while setting two new OSU standards on her own in the 100- and 200-yard butterfly competitions. Gunenc scored a second-place finish in the 200-yard event, and Buelens joined her in the finals race and on the podium at fifth place.
Fleck's "foreign five" have played a huge role in getting the Ohio State swimming program back its glory days when the Buckeyes claimed five straight championships from 1982-86. The team's seventh-place finish marked the its best since 1997, and Fleck said her team leaders, Gunenc and Bruelens, are poised for even greater marks this season.
Buelens also faced the demands of leaving her home and family, but the Belgian had a much bigger fear in the back of her mind than facing a new culture and language. At the age of 3, Buelens contracted a severe form of hepatitis, a disease that causes inflammation of the liver, from an antibiotic. She recovered wonderfully, and started swimming at the age of 5. After a few years, Buelens competition got serious and she started looking for colleges. But in 2002, she contracted hepatitis for the second time. Although her doctors discussed the possibility of transfusions and a liver transplant, Buelens defeated the illness before such measures were necessary.
Again Buelens made a dramatic recovery and in 2004, she became a Belgian national champion in both the 100- and 200-meter butterfly events at the European Championships. Later that fall, she came to Ohio State and made a quick transition in the water.
In her first dual meet as a Buckeye, Buelens claimed two individual crowns and helped champion the 200-yard freestyle relay team to victory. She needed only two collegiate meets to notch the team's first NCAA qualifying mark of the season.
Buelens went on to claim 21 individual titles during the team's dual-meet season. In her first Big Ten Championships in 2005, she became the first individual champion for the Buckeyes since Jocelyn Jay won in 1995 with the fastest time in Ohio State's women's swimming history.
"I was really afraid coming here because of leaving my family, but when I first got here, everyone helped me out a lot," Buelens said. "But when I came here the girls were so nice. They helped me out with everything. The first season, my parents were a little scared for me to come here because they were worried if I got sick.
"The whole team just made life so much easier coming here, just because they are from different countries also and they know how it is to be away from home. I miss my family, but I'm not homesick."
All five of the Buckeyes international swimmers said the most rewarding challenge was adjusting to the team dynamic, trading in the fear of stepping far beyond their comfort zones for unparalleled competition and life-long friendships.
Buelens and Rychvalsky will get to share in the best of both worlds this Christmas, when they'll look forward to planning their Buckeye trip.