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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

US colleges are training the world’s female Olympians

Natalie Mlynkova, center, of the Czech Republic, who is also a member of the Czech Republic national ice hockey team and plays with the University of Vermont Catamounts women’s ice hockey team, in Burlington, Vt., Nov. 1, 2022.

By Alan Blinder

Sini Karjalainen could have played ice hockey closer to home.

She could have stayed in Finland, where she was born. Sweden, with its elite women’s league, was a nearby proving ground. To Karjalainen, though, the most direct route to her goal — a place on Finland’s Olympic roster — ran through the University of Vermont in Burlington, thousands of miles away.

“It was the easiest,” she said, “the most simple.”

Many of the world’s most athletically gifted women are following similar paths.

In the half-century since Title IX banned discrimination on the basis of sex in nearly every educational setting, millions of American women have embraced vastly expanded opportunities in college sports.

More subtly, though, the law has also made the United States an athletic incubator for women from beyond the nation’s borders. Attracted by the training programs and facilities made possible by Title IX and often constrained by a lack of opportunities at home, thousands of women have competed on American campuses before joining national teams around the world.

At last year’s Winter Olympics in Beijing, where Karjalainen won a bronze medal playing for Finland, every women’s ice hockey team had skaters with some American college experience. And as this year’s college hockey postseason plows ahead — on Saturday, Vermont beat New Hampshire in a conference tournament quarterfinal — many college teams will send recent Olympians onto the ice.

The story is much the same for summer sports: At the Tokyo Games in 2021, at least 75 countries fielded women who had competed for American colleges.

“They’re here because of the opportunities on college teams that were made possible by Title IX, ranging from roster spots to scholarships and other benefits,” said Val Ackerman, the Big East Conference commissioner who formerly led the WNBA and USA Basketball.

According to NCAA data published in December, the share of international students on teams in Division I, the association’s most prominent tier, steadily increased until the coronavirus pandemic. But the association still reported that more than 3,300 international students, most of them women, played for the first time in 2021. Six years earlier, there had been 2,720.

“You’re treating them like an elite Olympic athlete so they’re prepared by the time they get to their national team,” said Nadine Muzerall, the women’s ice hockey coach at top-ranked Ohio State, which won last season’s national championship.

“I don’t really care where they come from,” she added, “as long as they’re a good human being and they have talent.”

A wide talent pool

As women’s sports expanded in the United States in the decades after Title IX was signed into law in June 1972, college coaches increasingly caught on to what the statute did not say: that the women filling rosters had to be Americans. To some coaches building teams, often at low-profile schools with a shortage of skilled players, the global talent pool was where breakthroughs could happen.

“I did it right out of the gate, and the rest is history,” said Shannon Miller, who led Canada to a silver medal at the 1998 Nagano Games before she steered Minnesota Duluth to five NCAA women’s ice hockey titles. “A lot of the coaches that I was coaching against really attacked me publicly and personally. They were throwing stones left, right and center that were ridiculous, and it was just sheer jealousy.”

Miller was offering something that women in many other countries could not easily get: a college experience that seamlessly blended higher education with athletic training and competition. In Europe, especially, athletes and executives from one country after another, in one sport to the next, lamented that their existing system was more suffocating than supportive. Without American-style college sports programs, with big coaching staffs, glittering facilities and a culture that eased the coexistence of coursework and athletic training, many said they thought it was virtually impossible to balance education with sports, and to be able to earn enough money to make ends meet.

Some European coaches and executives chafe at the exodus. Lena Wallin-Kantzy, one of Swedish basketball’s leading power brokers, recalled how some in her sport had privately floated imposing rules that could limit the appeal of moving to the United States.

“I said: ‘OK, but then we need to come up with better possibilities. They choose to go there because they think they can develop,’” Wallin-Kantzy said. “It’s better to help the kids go to the right place, and then when they come back, they can play for a Swedish club and they can play for the national team and so on.”

Her own daughter went to America to play.

An opportunity abroad

In any given school year, close to half of first-year women’s ice hockey players come from outside the United States, trailing only tennis, according to NCAA statistics. Thousands more head to American campuses for sports such as basketball, golf, soccer, swimming, and track and field, and even fencing and bowling.

But top-tier ice hockey players have been especially drawn to America because the United States, along with Canada, is one of women’s hockey’s foremost powers, stirring a talent development network that includes colleges.

“For many young women who are playing in the Czech Republics of the world, they don’t really have a great system once they graduate from high school,” said Joel Johnson, the University of St. Thomas coach who led the silver-medal-winning U.S. team in Beijing. “To this point, there has been no better overall development, for age 18 to 22 or 23, than the U.S. college system.”

Tynka Patkova, a Czech player who is from a small town near the border with Germany, has sometimes yearned for family back home since she enrolled at Vermont. But being in Burlington, she said, had given her greater discipline than she might have developed in Europe. Coaches in Europe said that players with American college experience often had comparable athletic skills to women who remained in Europe but that their strategic sense and mental toughness often seemed superior.

“Because of playing here, I was able to train for that long to keep myself in the game and was able to keep getting better,” Patkova said. “I would guess I would not make the Olympics without it.”

Risking a backlash

Schools and coaches accept some risks when they sign an international player. Language barriers can complicate admissions, academics and team chemistry. Some students face challenges with the whirlwind of long-distance travel and international competition schedules.

There is also, coaches acknowledged, the risk of consternation among spurned American prospects and their parents, and questions about whether colleges in the United States should be paying to train athletes who might play under other flags.

Minnesota, whose women’s hockey team has won six NCAA titles, has largely remained an in-state operation, but Brad Frost, the Gophers’ coach since 2007, recalled some pushback when he first brought in two Finnish players.

“Just wait until you see these players,” he remembered telling naysayers. The players won national championships and, later, Olympic medals. The dissent quieted.

Winning, coaches said, usually silences skeptics. As beneficial as collegiate training might be to a player, their new schools and coaches are looking for returns, too.

As coaches across college sports have faced mounting pressure to win, many of them have come to believe that they cannot afford to overlook any potential star anywhere.

“My job is to be competitive, and if I’m not, I’m out of it,” said Sparky Anderson, the skiing coach at Alaska Anchorage, where 91% of the female skiers are from abroad. “If I could get a whole bunch of Alaskans and they were going to be top 10 at NCAAs, I’m all in. But that’s just not the reality.”

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