A college athlete’s career takes years to build to an elite level.
It takes a spark to ignite a passion in a child to become great. It takes years and years of hard work – extra time on the field perfecting skills, lifting and conditioning to get into top shape, training the mind to endure as much as the body. And finally, it takes intense competition, which, no matter how much a body has been disciplined, presents the chance it will fail against someone more talented.
Something pushes athletes to not only endure all theses obstacles, but enjoy them. Something innate makes them want to sacrifice time, sleep and a social life to be the best. Some athletes sacrifice more than others.
At ACU – a school with almost 300 athletes – a handful left everything behind in their home countries to relocate to the United States and compete in the NCAA, the highest level an athlete can reach before going pro.
Marina Guerrero is a 20-year-old freshman from Banyoles, Spain. The 5-foot-3-inch runner just moved to Texas five months ago, one week before her first semester of college in America began.
Guerrero, a dual-sport athlete with long, light brown hair and sharp brown eyes, is new to the ranks of ACU’s most historically successful sport, track and field, and its fall companion, cross country. With a long list of international competitions under her belt, she was a huge recruit for ACU, although she says she was the one who contacted assistant coach Drew Graham about a spot on the team.
Guerrero had always wanted to transfer to a school in the U.S. because she knew it would be the best education she would get.
“I studied in a college in Spain for two years, but the schools have nothing in common compared to the ones in the USA. I talked to Texas A&M, too, but ACU is better!”
Guerrero said academics are what drew to her to ACU rather than the new Div. I athletic program. School has always been her priority.
Though older than most incoming freshmen, Guerrero said moving away from home was the hardest experience of her life.
“When I was planning the trip, I was so excited and I never thought about that, but in the airport when I just left my parents, all the homesick feelings came to me suddenly, and I started my travel crying.”
Still, she said moving to Abilene might be the best decision of her life. She said she has loved ACU from the moment she got here. Everything here is different and completely new to her.
“I thought that the boots were only a myth, and also the fast food. Also, the guns in the shops, the huge supermarket, the extended land without nothing, no mountains”¦”
In her two years of college in Spain, Guerrero was a biotechnology major and studied mostly biology. Here, she is in animal science: biotechnology and research, focusing more on animals, farms and agriculture – things she is not used to. On a brighter note, however, she says it is much easier to get good grades here.
Though she has not yet had many opportunities to prove herself in Div. I athletics, Guerrero has been hard at work adjusting to the rigorous training programs.
In Spain, she would only do long runs once a week. Here, she does them five or six times a week. Back home, her long runs were six miles; here, they can go up to 12. She has also started pool workouts and weightlifting workouts she never did before. Now, with two meets left before the Southland Conference Indoor Championships, she is in the best shape of her life.
Though the transition was hard, Guerrero has found her place at ACU. She said she does everything with her teammates who have helped her through the culture shock and even assisted with translations.
“I remember the first week that I was here that we went to Colorado with the team, and we spent like 11 hours inside a van, and I almost couldn’t say anything. But this is an added point in this adventure, to learn a new language.”
Guerrero says this “adventure” in the U.S. will continue until she earns her undergraduate degree, after which she plans to move back to Spain and pursue a master’s in molecular biology.
Other athletes were not as academically motivated as Guerrero when they chose a school in the U.S.
In 2011, Guilherme Gesser came to Texas after planning for three years to attend school in the United States. Born in Florianópolis, Santa Catarina, Brazil, Gesser was used to life in a big, beach city that Newsweek put on its 2006 list of “Top 10 most dynamic places in the world.”
After spending the first 18 years of his life in such a lively city, Gesser packed his bags to attend college in Abilene.
The 6-foot-1-inch senior, a top tennis recruit out of high school in Brazil, has light brown eyes and short, dark brown hair.
He wanted to play tennis in college at an NCAA institution and got help from a recruiting company in Brazil that helped him contact coaches. Gesser said he started looking at colleges a bit late in the recruiting process and took the first offer that was made to him, though he had no doubt ACU was the right school for him.
“I was attracted to the level of the tennis team, ranked sixth in the nation in Division II when I got here,” Gesser said. “Also, ACU is really good academically, and the business school is great.”
Although his move to Texas was smooth and he had a few friends already studying here, Gesser said it was difficult to move to a different country on his own. He had to adjust to a different language while taking college courses and competing at a much higher level than he was used to.
However, traveling through South and North America from age 12 to 18 for international tournaments gave him enough exposure to other lifestyles and cultures to help prepare him for the move.
“It is hard to move away from my family and friends… and especially from the city where I am from. The only reason why it wasn’t really bad is because I am on the tennis team, so it kept me busy and traveling.”
Tennis has been the one constant in Gesser’s life since his move; the game is the same worldwide. Training with the team has been fun and similar to his training style back home, and the only huge adjustment he’s had to make is switching from the clay courts in Brazil to the hard courts used in the US.
Gesser’s success suggests his move has had no impact on his performance. He went from being All-Lone Star Conference his sophomore year in singles and doubles with Hans Hach to making First Team All-Southland Conference in doubles with Borja Cortés as a junior. His numbers have increased steadily each year of college despite the move up to Div. I in the 2013-2014 season.
He’s also had little difficulty transitioning in the classroom. During his junior year, he earned First Team Southland Conference All-Academic honors and made the Southland Conference Commissioner’s Honor Roll.
In May, Gesser will complete his degree in management and marketing. He said if he has an opportunity to stay in the U.S. for grad school this fall, he will take it.
“It has had ups and down, but it has been really nice here most of the time. I have learned a lot, and I hope I can use it moving forward.”
Two spots above Gesser on the tennis roster is Marco Bensley, another international student-athlete who plays the same sport but went through a different transition in his move to the US in 2013 at the age of 19.
A junior from Stellenbosch, South Africa, Bensley has an athletic build at 5 foot 10 inches with light, sand-colored hair.
He experienced more culture shock than Gesser, having to adjust to little things such as food and accents as well as the language barrier he faced as a native speaker of Afrikaans. Since he only gets to go home over Christmas breaks, he has had to acclimate to the lifestyle here somewhat permanently, at least for college.
“I was very overwhelmed by moving and playing here, start my new life and do my own thing. I miss my family a lot, though, when it’s summer and I’m not busy.”
Bensley, who was ranked among top 10 players under 18 in 2012 and was the No. 1 high school player in 2011 and 2012, said he was being recruited by several schools in the States. But he’d heard about ACU from Casper Steenkamp, another South African tennis player and former Wildcat from several years ago, and contacted one of the coaches. He said somehow, things just worked out for him to come to Abilene.
“Since I was small, I wanted to go to college in the States; it’s all tennis players’ dream,” Bensley said. “ACU looked and seemed really exclusive, and it is. Also, the Christian caught my attention. I was also looking at Fresno State. I was a pretty big recruit for ACU I would say, taking my previous accomplishments.”
Bensley is a business management and marketing major and has enjoyed the difference in education styles between the U.S and South Africa.
“School here is all online. Books are clearly going away. Back home everything is in books and paper.”
Much like Gesser, Bensley has found familiarity and success on the tennis courts, though he said training here is much more fitness-oriented than it is back home.
As a highly sought recruit and an accomplished veteran of International Tennis Federation competition, he has performed on a large stage against top opponents. He didn’t blink at the transition to Div. I of the NCAA; rather, his performance improved after the change. During his sophomore year, he won five of six Southland matches and finished second on the team with 16 singles victories. He also earned Second Team Southland Conference honors in singles.
Bensley still has almost two years until graduation but said he might want to stay in the US when he finishes college – it depends on his girlfriend who doesn’t want to move to South Africa. He said if things work out between the two of them and he moves to the US, he wants to live in a bigger city.
Until then, he is having the time of his life at ACU.
“There’s been a lot of ups and downs, but more ups of course. That’s why I am still here. The experience has been amazing and unforgettable; best decision I have ever made.”
A few hundred feet away from the Teague tennis courts, the basketball team continues to prepare for conference games in Moody Coliseum.
One man, No. 14, towers above his teammates at 6 foot 10 inches, one of the tallest basketball players in ACU history. While that kind of height can sometimes be intimidating, his friendly demeanor makes him more approachable.
Aleksandar Milosavljevic was born in Svilajnac, Serbia, in 1990. Though this is only his second year at ACU, he has experienced more American culture than most international athletes on campus.
He is a “four-two-four,” or an athlete who attends one four-year university, transfers to a junior college, then transfers out to another four-year university for the rest of his undergraduate degree and NCAA eligibility. Texas is the third state in which he’s attended school in the US.
After graduating high school in Serbia, Milosavljevic played his freshman year at Div. II University of Southern Arkansas before transferring to Georgia Perimeter College in Atlanta.
On first arriving in Arkansas, Milosavljevic said the culture shock was overwhelming and absolutely everything was different for him, especially the language which he is still learning. The major adjustment was made worse by the fact that he could rarely go home.
“I was 19 when I got to the States, and back home I was already playing ball in other countries than Serbia, so I already lived three years away from home, so it was just another destination for me. The difference was that I was homesick because I used to go home once every month or two months, but now it was really hard to go home.”
After his year at Georgia Perimeter College, he decided to finish his undergraduate studies at ACU because it was the Div. I program with the best environment, people, education and basketball program for him.
Now in his senior year, Milosavljevic is not a starter, nor does he have the best stats on the team. But when the coaches put him in, he has a presence on the court that opposing players are not quick to dismiss.
The court is where Milosavljevic feels most at home. He said when he got to Abilene it was “way harder up here; it is more physical and there is way more strength and conditioning than back in Europe.”But he quickly adjusted, and is now in the middle of his last season with the Wildcats. He hopes to return to a pro career in Europe after he graduates.
He is not entirely attached to the States, but he has found the success he needed to in his time here.
“It is great here. Basketball is going well for me and also I maintain a good GPA which is important for me. And Abilene is small. It’s different from Atlanta, keeps me focused and gets me doing what am I supposed to do, and I like that.”
College athletes have to possess a certain level of motivation to get them to the highest level, but it takes a special kind of person to leave behind an entire life for the love of a game. Guerrero, Gesser, Bensley and Milosavljevic share a special quality that may not measure their athletic performances, but certainly speak volumes of their character.