Abrupt shutdown leaves NCAA's international student-athletes with limited choices

Utah basketball player Niyah Becker couldn't make it home to Winnipeg, Canada, so she moved into off-campus housing with a couple of teammates. David Dennis/Icon Sportswire

Syracuse track and field athlete Iliass Aouani started hearing the stories from back home in Milan, Italy, about the coronavirus months ago. Of course, he worried about his family's safety as his hometown became the epicenter for spread.

But even then, in mid-February, he never anticipated what would happen here in the United States.

"One day you are training normally, the next, it seemed like a movie, no one could believe this would be happening," Aouani said.

The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the remaining college sports seasons, with spring sports like outdoor track and field taking the largest hit. As if the sudden end was not enough of a shock, the measures universities started to implement to try to keep their students safe delivered a far different set of challenges for international student-athletes.

Should they stay in the United States or go back to their home countries?

What if they had no choice in the matter?

According to the NCAA, there are more than 20,000 international student-athletes competing at NCAA schools. There are no quantifiable figures on how many stayed in the U.S. and how many left. But based on interviews with athletes and coaches across a wide range of sports, decisions about what to do varied based on individual circumstances and campus recommendations.

Sticking around

Aouani knew there was no way he could go back to Italy, considering the situation there. His hometown was on complete lockdown -- nobody is allowed to go outside, even for a run or stroll. His family told him they believe people in their neighborhood died, but there is no way to verify it with people shut into their homes. The only sounds coming from the street are the constant wail of ambulances, they said.

Aouani had no choice other than to stay, but because he lives in an on-campus apartment, he needed to get permission from university officials. His roommate left, so currently Aouani lives on his own on south campus, about a mile and a half from the main campus. Without access to the facility or dining hall, he makes all of his meals and does all of his training on his own.

According to Syracuse, there are about 12 student-athletes living in on-campus housing. More than half are international students. There are other student-athletes living off campus as well, including some from the track and field team.

"It is really sad here," Aouani said. "It feels like it's summer. No one is around, and it doesn't feel like school is still going on. It is tough -- at least when you are with people, you can share the hardship much easier. Now it feels like you're alone in this situation. I think if I went earlier enough I would have been able to go home, but at this point it would be very hard, almost impossible. I thought it would be smart and better for me to stay here and focus on school and control what I can control from here."

At Utah, students living in dorms were urged to leave campus if they had another place to go. Sophomore basketball player Niyah Becker, from Winnipeg, Canada, wanted to go home and see her family, but the logistics proved too difficult. Facing the prospect of a 14-day quarantine upon arrival and no timetable for a return because of current travel restrictions, she decided it would be best to stay.

Teammate Julie Brosseau, from Quebec, felt the same way. So teammates helped each other out. Brosseau lives in an off-campus house with Maurane Corbin (also from Quebec) and Dru Gylten (from South Dakota). Gylten decided to go home, so Becker temporarily moved into her room in the house, packing up the necessities from her dorm room to make the short move.

"We're really conscious of everywhere we go, what we touch, and when we come back in the house we spray ourselves down with Lysol and change our clothes and wash our hands a billion times a day," Becker said. "We try not to leave the house, and go out only if we need to."

They go for runs outside, but do their workouts in the living room mainly, although they do have basketballs and practice their ballhandling in the driveway. To pass the time, they do crafts, puzzles and watch movies.

Still, Brosseau has not entirely ruled out going back to Canada to see her family, and her back-and-forth "should I stay or should I go" just shows how hard it can be to make these choices.

"I'm staying busy with my teammates, but I might go home in maybe a month just because I don't want to be in Utah for another year without seeing my family," Brosseau said. "I don't want to be stuck in Canada and not be able to come back to the U.S. That's why I'm still here and trying to figure out what to do."

A little more than 500 miles to the east in Boulder, Colorado, skier Magnus Boee decided not to return home to Norway because of tighter restrictions in his home country, quarantine prospects and the fact that the eight-hour time difference would severely hamper his ability to join online classes. Plus, he noted, the weather is better in Colorado and he is able to get outside -- he recently went camping over a weekend.

Of the 43 international student-athletes on Colorado rosters, 19 stayed in Boulder. Colorado athletics gave those athletes who stayed in town a gold card to buy groceries, which is equivalent to the cost of dining hall meals. The NCAA gave schools discretion to assist student-athletes with whatever is needed during this time period, including campus displacements (that also includes emergency travel).

Boee lives off campus. One of his roommates left, but he has a temporary roommate -- a former Colorado skier from Estonia who arrived in the United States for World Cup ski races both here and in Canada. But with all that canceled, he is stuck in Boulder for the time being. Boee has found ways to pass the time beyond taking his classes, camping and doing his daily workouts. He just bought a guitar and said he plans to teach himself how to play.

"It's not that fun being mostly isolated and not meeting with people," Boee said. "It's better for us skiers that we got to race almost our entire season, unlike lacrosse and a lot of spring sports that are all canceled. I don't complain about being in Boulder. I have everything I need right now -- that's why I'm staying."

There are other international student-athletes who made the decision to stay -- just not on campus or its surrounding area.

Syracuse forward Marek Dolezaj made the 16-hour drive with his girlfriend to her home in Springfield, Missouri, the weekend after the ACC and NCAA basketball tournaments were canceled -- both believing they would return to campus after spring break. But shortly after their arrival, they learned the campus was closing, so they remain in Missouri.

Dolezaj, from Slovakia, heard stories about friends having a difficult time just making it back to their home country, so he opted against even trying.

"For me, it's a 16-hour flight, but maybe some other international students have more problems finding a place to stay if the school tells you one day to leave and you have to figure stuff out," Dolezaj said. "I'm really lucky I have someone like my girlfriend to stay here and maybe other people don't have it. I could tell some of my friends were confused and stressed, and they didn't know what to do. It's a hard time for everyone.

Among the five international players on the Syracuse basketball team, three are staying with friends in the United States and two went home.

Going home

Syracuse field hockey coach Ange Bradley has seven international players on her roster -- including six from Europe. After the NCAA canceled the remainder of the season, her international players asked for advice. Syracuse was going out on spring break, and they didn't know whether they should still take their domestic trips with friends or go home.

"I said you should pack up and plan like you're not coming back," Bradley said. "Get your ticket and go home is what I told them to do before this all blew up."

Most went home. Two went to Miami for spring break before deciding to go back home. All seven now are in their home countries, providing some unique challenges. They were already home when campus shut down, so their American teammates got permission to clean out their dorm rooms, then split the cost of a storage unit for the gear they left behind.

With immense time zone differences, Bradley had to figure out the best day and time to hold online meetings with the team, who are spread from Los Angeles to Berlin (4 p.m. ET seems to work best, she said). Several international players also have relatives who have contracted the coronavirus, adding to the stress and worry.

"I'm happy that they're with their family," Bradley said. "We stay connected as part of the Syracuse field hockey family, and no matter how close or how far, we are always connected. I just think back to this -- they were making decisions to go hang out with domestic teammates for a week, and had they stayed with that decision it could have been four weeks, six weeks in someone else's house. It's still very surreal in a lot of ways."

At UCLA, gymnast Pauline Tratz and diver Ruby Neave also decided to go home. The decisions were left entirely up to them. Tratz said she was hesitant to leave at first, but ultimately chose to return to Karlsruhe, Germany, to be closer to family.

"It for sure was not easy for me because in the beginning I wanted this all to be not true," Tratz said in an email. "I wanted to be around my teammates and go through this difficult time with them, and I still thought that everything is going back to normal soon. However, after most of my teammates and all my roommates had already left, I realized that nothing is going to be back to normal soon.

"The seriousness of this crisis with all its difficulties really hit me, and I was committed to doing my part to help the situation. This meant that going home and being with my family was the best decision."

Tratz said she was worried about flying, unsure about the best safety precautions to take. After her first flight to Germany was canceled, she had to take another that connected through Newark, New Jersey. She said Los Angeles International airport was fairly empty, but she had a 3½ hour layover (in Newark) and was "was overwhelmed with the amount of people at the airport, waiting at their gate."

Once she arrived in Germany, there were no additional screenings, and she did not have to self-isolate at home.

It was different for Neave, who decided to go back to Melbourne, Australia, after her coach gave her the green light. She was required to go into 14-day isolation at her home, so she has been relegated to her bedroom. She has her own bathroom, gloves and mask and eats separately from her family.

"It has been very strange, going from such a structured lifestyle to having all this time to literally do nothing," Neave said. "But I've been doing some painting, trying to learn some new songs on the piano and watching lots of movies."

The abrupt end to the season was especially difficult. Neave missed her first two seasons at UCLA after undergoing back surgery. This season, her first for the Bruins, she qualified for the NCAA championships in both 1-meter and 3-meter events. Before the team went its separate ways, coaches took all those who qualified for NCAAs out to breakfast.

"We were all a little bit confused on how to feel -- at the breakfast we knew that would be it, after that point, a lot of people were leaving that day to go home," Neave said. "It was strange, but at the same time it was nice, and I think we all got closure from it. The coaches gave a nice speech and told us how proud they were of us in getting to where we were."

It took Colorado golfer John Paterson nearly a full day to return home to St. Andrews, Scotland. He had to take three flights, including one through New York. Since arriving home, he has been isolating in his room. His family leaves food at the door for him.

"It was an easy decision for me, my family wanted me home for obvious reasons, and I wanted to go home also," Paterson said. "It's a challenging time for everyone, and I think being able to face it with your family is the best route.

"I'm going to return probably a week before school restarts in the fall. I have no real reason to be back in the U.S. with no academic or athletic responsibilities. Hopefully, this will all improve, and we can start the 2020-2021 season as planned."