Culture shock, a language barrier, Canadian winter—there’s a lot to contend with for any foreign student at Queen’s. Some of them are simultaneously grappling with the challenges of playing varsity sports.
Queen’s Athletics boasts athletes from nearly every province in Canada (sorry, Saskatchewan, PEI, Newfoundland and Labrador, and also all the territories). But there are also currently athletes from seven different countries around the world.
When the only connection between your home and a foreign country is your sport, the move can be daunting.
But players in volleyball, hockey, soccer, rugby, basketball, and rowers and cross-country runners have all made the leap.
Some are just making the most out of their time on exchange, while others are taking advantage of cheaper tuition and scholarships that aren’t available in their home country.
Of the 400 varsity athletes at Queen’s, 2.25 per cent of them hail from abroad.
Liam Casey is a lock on the rugby team from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Although his family holds Canadian citizenship, he had always lived overseas. While playing in New Zealand, he was scouted to play for the Canadian U-18 team. There, he met Queen’s Head Coach Dave Butcher and got recruited to come play for the Gaels.
“Playing rugby made [my transition] so much easier,” Casey told The Journal. “There was definitely a type of culture shock when I came here […] but the beauty of playing rugby is pretty much everyone who plays rugby is a beauty.”
“It’s an immediate connection you have with like 40 guys, so no matter what your differences, you can always bond over rugby at the very least.”
Coming from such a varied background, Casey was initially taken aback by the homogeneity at Queen’s, and the lack of good food. “I think just the general lack of diversity is pretty shocking and strange… [and] the food here is expensive and not nearly as good.”
However, Casey said the camaraderie of his teammates helped him get used to Canada.
“If you mean ‘help’ by roasting me mercilessly for saying something stupid like, ‘Jeez, it gets cold here really fast,’ or laughing their asses off when they saw me rolling around in snow for the first time, then, yes, they have been helpful,” he quipped.
“Honestly, I loved how kind everybody is here […] everyone here was just so nice, I really felt like I fit in and belonged very quickly.”
Brazilian sophomore Bruno Chan, a wing on the men’s basketball team, felt much the same way.
“I think the most difficult part for me was being so far from my family. Because of my busy schedule with basketball, I can only go back to Brazil once a year,” Chan explained to The Journal. “However, what surprised me was how friendly everyone is here. Living away from your family can be hard, but my friends in Canada have made it much easier for me.”
Chan moved to Vancouver for high school. Previously a soccer player in Brazil, he touched a basketball for the first time in ninth grade.
He had gone to an American school in Brazil, but he hadn’t picked up too much English because all of his classmates were Brazilian, so they usually just defaulted to Portuguese.
“When I first got to Canada, it was a little tough for a couple months,” Chan admitted.
However, by the end of his first season with his high school team, he had gotten over the language barrier, made some friends on the team, and become a starter. A few short years later, his coach put him in touch with the Queen’s coach, Steph Barrie, who invited him for a visit.
“When I got to campus and met all of my teammates I knew that was the place I wanted to go.”
“I’d say being part of these two teams made my experience [of adjusting to Canada] way better and [made it] way easier to make new friends.”
Andrea Bragagna came on exchange from Italy last year, where he had played soccer in the fourth division, Series D. He slotted right into the Queen’s lineup, but there were some peculiarities about U SPORTS that threw him off.
“Something that is really important that I noticed is that everything that is related to sport is[…] very important for the school, for the school as an institution,” Bragagna told The Journal in a phone interview.
“Everything is very formal in relation to the soccer team, or teams in general. You have all this preparation before the game, you have the national anthem, everybody is excused from class because there is a sport to attend, it’s very, very formalized.”
“In Italy, not at all. You will never play for a team of the school, there is not such a thing.”
The Canadian approach to soccer was bizarre for him as well. Gone was the freewheeling creativity of his native Bolzano, replaced with rote, mechanized roles and expectations.
“It’s very practical in Canada, and even too much, probably. Your approach to the game and how you stay in the field, it’s too matching to the software that the coach uses.”
“Soccer is something that is uncontrollable. You can put a team on the field but during the game, there are certain things that are too variable, it’s not a perfect equation that you can control.”
Through all these differences, Bragagna found his place with the team.
“I really appreciate how the teammates treated me and welcomed me, even though the locker room is some sacred thing for Canadian soccer players. In Italy, for example, there is not that same mindset in the locker room, everyone is for himself, there’s not that deep team cohesion. It’s just something that helped a lot.”
The takeaway from these stories is that sports can transcend barriers—there are rulebooks in every language, but they all mean the same thing. A ball going through a hoop in Brazil counts for the same two points it does in Canada, and the team with more points always wins.
Sports hold the potential to be a great equalizer. On the field, the only identifier that matters is ‘teammate’.
Casey summed it up nicely: “Good rugby is good rugby no matter where you play it. All you need is good players, a great coach, and lots of determination, and Queen’s has all of them.”
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