The varsity athletic and international student communities often appear completely alienated from each other. Certainly there is crossover between the two groups, but many teams feature a complete absence of international players, and even those that do include a couple at most.
This reality is largely the result of the difficulties of international recruiting, which is far more costly, logistically challenging, and time consuming than domestic scouting. However, what can varsity teams do to encourage athletic international Scots to join a squad? Cross Country and Track’s Libby Liu ’16 is the latest international student to join a varsity athletic team.
Hailing from Qingdao, China, Liu had never participated in organized running before approaching Head Coach Betsy Emerson about joining the Cross Country team at the start of her sophomore year. Her parents both ran, her mother at the collegiate level, and Liu “wanted to challenge herself with something she’d never done before,” she said. Another attraction of joining a team was further integration into American culture. Sports teams, from her observations, were far more central to the everyday lives of her American friends than to her Chinese friends.
The Women’s Cross Country team’s tradition of rallying around each other and inclusion struck her first. “At first I was really scared, because at that point I still considered myself new to America, I didn’t fit into the culture that well, my English wasn’t that good. Caitlin Toner ’15, who studies Chinese, spoke to me in Chinese and made me feel very welcome,” Liu said. This spirit of communal accomplishment has been Liu’s favorite part of the program from her first day as a walk-on to today. “When I PR (set a personal record), get a job, do well in school, my teammates are genuinely excited for me,” she said.
Emerson and Liu agreed that the greatest challenge of beginning organized running at an advanced age like 19 is fitness and stamina. Even though cross country may certainly be one of the most intuitive organized sports—in Emerson’s words, running “is just putting one foot in front of the other” —building up the necessary stamina is a gradual process that led to leg soreness for Liu that kept her out for a couple weeks of her first season. “After a couple months I got in much better shape,” Liu added. Similarly, Emerson noticed that Liu came back far stronger this season, having had access to a weight room this summer.
Last cross country season, Liu finished mostly toward the back of the pack, which is of course to be expected for a first time runner. After cross country ended, Liu did not plan on participating in the track season, but Emerson convinced her to and she found her niche in the 800 meter event. “I didn’t expect to love track, but I did immediately,” Liu said.
Liu strives to set a PR every meet this year and to avoid the injuries that shortened her first season. Following a full year as a member of the Mac running program, “I am tougher physically and stronger mentally. I am more confident,” she said.
Given the happiness and success of international students on her team, Emerson hopes she can create an environment that consistently attracts international students to join her squad. Liu insisted that the most important step toward achieving this goal is familiarizing the international community and the sports world with each other. As she said, “Many international students here don’t know what cross country is.”
Emerson suggested that coaches need to be creative in the ways they reach out to other communities. “There are a lot of people on campus who could be successful runners,” she said, adding that the discipline and focus preached in the classroom translates easily to cross country and track and field. Emerson and Liu share the conviction that bringing more international students into the athletic community would enrich both the students’ Macalester experience and the department as a whole.