COLUMBIA — Alex Clark looks like any other freshman.
She has a love-hate relationship with her classes. She has had to make new friends, going through that awkward period when nobody really knows anybody. Saturday, she decked herself out in yellow and headed toward Faurot Field, following the sea of Homecoming spirit.
But she isn’t exactly like everybody else. And when she speaks, it becomes obvious.
Her accent is thick and distinctive.
Clark, who hails from London, is a 17-year-old freshman on Missouri’s tennis team. She made a name for herself in England as a junior in high school, when the International Tennis Federation named her one of the top-20 players in England under the age of 16.
Now, the comforts of England — of home — are gone. In Columbia, nothing is familiar. The transition hasn’t been easy, but Clark is adjusting.
“The culture is different. It’s definitely different. You guys drive on the wrong side of the road,” Clark said, laughing loudly. “Everyone has different accents, and that takes some getting used to.”
Clark loves the community atmosphere that comes with the school and the town. The idea of being part of an athletics department and a family of people that can relate to and share common experiences appeals to her.
She loved Homecoming, and, as she was quick to find out, she loves football.
“Ah! My first game. … It was amazing. Just the atmosphere — being together, all for one team, and all in yellow,” Clark said.
Still, there are times when Clark can’t help but miss home. It comes with the territory. She looks around her, and doesn’t see anyone or anything that she knows. While she loves where she is, Clark is almost always thinking about where she came from.
“I miss home every day. Every day,” Clark said. Her eyes dart away. She does her best to hide her emotions behind subtle humor. “Luckily we have Skype, and I have a lot of international calls on my phone, so … that’s pretty good.”
Luckily, she isn’t the only one on the tennis team that has felt this way. Maria Christensen, a junior, spent her childhood and teenage years in Hellerup, Denmark. In her first years at MU, she felt that same isolation.
Now as Clark’s occasional doubles partner, she tries to stress to her teammate that she isn’t alone.
“I definitely told Alex that whenever she misses home she can come and talk to me. I can totally relate to where she comes from," Christensen said. “There is an age difference. I’m 22, and she’s 17. But she has used me whenever she’s homesick.”
Missouri tennis coach Sasha Schmid said she has seen Clark go through a range of emotions in the early part of her freshman year. Normally infectiously bubbly and enthusiastic, Clark has also had her low points. There are times when it’s obvious that she misses her home.
In those moments, Schmid said she feels especially fortunate that Clark has a friend like Christensen, who she can relate to and take advice from.
“Maria also kind of went through a span that was difficult in her first semester," Schmid said. "That’s something that’s been nice to know, that there’s teammates that have gone through similar issues.”
Clark and Christensen, through their shared experiences as well as their common passion for tennis, have developed a unique bond. They understand each other — to a degree.
“Sometimes it’s obvious that she’s 17. She’s a really mature girl at some points, and then at other points I’m like, ‘What is this girl talking about?’” Christensen said.
“There’s no doubt that there’s an age difference between the rest of the team and her. But you feel so comfortable being around her. You can’t not love her, you know."
Despite the differences between Columbia and London, the one thing that translates perfectly is tennis. Clark won her first collegiate title at the Wake Forest Invitational on Oct. 2.
In a new environment, one that can at times be both exhilarating and isolating, Clark has tennis to fall back on. For the freshman, that’s a comforting thought.
“Tennis is pretty much the same as home, so I’ve been coping really well,” Clark said, smiling wide. “I’m doing all right."