International swimming and diving athletes embrace the challenges of competing in America

As swimming and diving programs across the country continue to recruit on the domestic podium, Pitt head coach John Hargis is looking beyond the borders of the United States to land his record-breaking athletes.

Hargis and the rest of his coaching staff have not hesitated to pursue international talent. Between the men’s and women’s teams, the rosters make up 13 international athletes from nine different countries — a significantly higher number than some other top programs across the country.

Two years away from his high school diploma in 2016, Cooper van der Laan found himself at a crossroads.

He had spent the past 18 months in his native Gold Coast, Australia, out of the pool and recovering from an injury sustained while walking his dog. After continuing to practice on it for the next several months, a preventive MRI revealed several fractures that forced him to undergo a full ankle reconstruction.

“It’s kind of funny in a way — at the time I didn’t think it was just a sprain,” said Van der Laan, now a senior swimmer at Pitt. “Then to change to ankle reconstruction and go through that whole process of recovery, not knowing if I was one, would be able to swim again, and two, to compete at a high level, that part was pretty daunting.”

The recovery did give Van der Laan the opportunity to think about his future.

Unlike the United States, where universities allow collegiate athletes to continue their academic careers while also working on their degrees, the majority of elite athletes in Australia have to choose between one or the other.

Fortunately for Van der Laan, he managed to make a full recovery and once again found some of his old form in the pool. Competitive swimming was another option for him.

While exploring his options, he spoke to a friend from Australia who made the jump to NCAA swimming and had nothing but good things to say about his experience. Shortly after that conversation, Van der Laan took it upon himself to see what options he had about the Pacific. Nearly 10,000 miles away, it was Pitt who stood out to him as the best combination of athletics and academics.

“I got a call from one of the coaches here at Pitt and it jumped out right away,” he said. “I saw myself developing as a student, as a swimmer and also as a person, so I seized the opportunity. I’d like to think I’ve run with it so far.”

You only need to glance through Pitt’s swimming and diving record books to see that Van der Laan made the most of his opportunity in Pittsburgh, most notably in the 100 Breast event. In three years with the Panthers, he has broken the school record in each of those three years, most recently at the Ohio State Invitational on November 18 with a 51.42.

He was a All-American, ACC Bronze Medalist and NCAA Championship Finalist last season and seems to be heading for an even better senior season. Hargis, a former Olympic gold medalist, said Van der Laan has the potential and mentality to swim at any level.

“With Cooper, he’s clearly an extremely talented athlete, probably one of the more talented athletes I’ve ever worked with,” Hargis said. “He kind of fits the model when it comes to when we look international. We really want to find the kid with an Olympic mentality, and I’d say Cooper has that mentality.”

Hargis also acknowledged that swimming at the national level is an arduous task for a country as competitive as Australia, but a goal he believes Van der Laan can achieve.

Senior diver Amy Read is another standout international recruit who has built a successful career in her four years with the Panthers. Read, from Leeds, England, qualified for the NCAA Championships in each of her first three seasons, and broke the school record in women’s platform diving last year with a 289.65 against West Virginia.

Like Van der Laan, Read didn’t really see going to school in the United States as a realistic option. Diving head coach Katie Kasprzak, who went to school in Leeds, gave some insight into how segregated school and sport are in England.

“There are no collegiate sports scholarships — there are teams, but they’re basically like intramural teams,” Kasprzak said. “Many divers will either put on hold or choose not to attend college as they pursue their international diving career.”

For Read, choosing one over the other was not an option. Majoring in communications, she wants to go to high school and find a job in the United States. She said Kasprzak’s experience diving in England and then coming to the United States was a big factor in her choosing Pitt to pursue both her academic and athletic careers.

“Oh, she’s definitely played a big part in my diving career,” Read said. “I think there was just something about the way she contacted me and it was obvious she felt comfortable there, she knew what it was like to move to America.”

Despite their success in the pool, there are a number of difficulties that come with being an international athlete, especially in the past two years with the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Van der Laan, he hasn’t returned to Australia in nearly 16 months, making the challenge of being thousands of miles from home even greater.

“First of all, your immediate family is on the other side of the world, and my freshman year, that was probably one of the biggest things I had to come to terms with,” he said. “I’m lucky enough to have contact with my family back home a few times a week, so that certainly helps, but you know, it’s hard not being able to go home for Christmas and all those holidays.”

Read said she was lucky enough to get home for Christmas and that she’s lucky not to be as far from Pittsburgh as some of the other international athletes. She said having other athletes around her who are all dealing with the stress of returning home to other countries has alleviated some of the stress associated with competing abroad.

“You’re not alone in the situation you’re in,” Read said. “Like, sometimes, when I’m having a hard time, I always know who the best people to talk to are because they’re going to have a hard time too. I do know that there are some student athletes in Pitt who couldn’t go home this Christmas because it was so bad in Europe.”

Dealing with the challenges of competing for championships, fighting homesickness and dealing with extended periods of time away from their home countries due to the pandemic has formed a bond between not only the international athletes but also their domestic counterparts. Kasprzak said she is very proud of how the athletes overcame the obstacles and made the most of stressful conditions.

“They really put their heads down, leaned on each other and did everything they could to make the best of the situation – and that’s something the whole team did, not just the internationals,” said Kasprzak. “Everyone is leaning on each other and there is a great support network here.”

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