Athletes go after dreams

Tuesday, June 1, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:25 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Elin Ohlsson came to the University of Missouri from Sweden in the fall of 1999 having never seen the campus. She had never seen Columbia.

Ohlsson knew she wanted to play golf for the Tigers while majoring in industrial engineering. Other than a few phone calls from Missouri coaches, e-mails and checks of Web sites, Ohlsson didn’t know much about the university.

It might come as a surprise then that Ohlsson didn’t need to think hard before electing to leave her home country.

“I knew what I wanted,” Ohlsson said. “I knew that I could go try it, and if I liked it, I’d stay. If I didn’t, I’d come back. It was never really a tough decision.”

Although Ohlsson had spent time as an exchange student in Oregon during high school, she said the transition to balancing courses with a collegiate athletic career was difficult. After earning playing time as a freshman, she never considered returning to Sweden. She worked religiously at her game as well as adapting to her new culture, with immediate results.

In spring 2002, Ohlsson was the lone Tiger to qualify for the NCAA Regional Tournament. She also earned Academic All-Big 12 Conference honors that spring. During her junior and senior seasons, she was named the team’s Most Valuable Player. She graduated this spring and is competing in the European LPGA Tour.

Ohlsson earned a spot on that tour by playing well at a qualifying tournament in Portugal. She said her opportunity probably never would have been realized had she not come to Missouri.

“It would have been tough, playing only eight or nine months out of the year in Sweden,” she said. “I had a great opportunity to get an education and there is great competition in golf here.”

The reason so many foreign athletes such as Ohlsson want to play at American universities is that their choices at home are limited. Most European colleges do not offer extensive athletic programs. Athletes either become professionals out of high school or go to college and forget their athletic dreams.

“Most players are too young and too inexperienced to turn pro,” Ohlsson said. “You don’t have a choice, really.”

Ben Scott realized at 14 that he would likely need to leave Lancashire, England, after high school to continue his athletic career while getting an education. In November of what was essentially his senior year of high school (British schools use a different class-year schedule from those in the United States) he earned a scholarship that allowed him to compete in a tournament in Florida.

American coaches didn’t recruit Scott, 21, while he was in England. At that tournament in Florida, he raised the interest of a few coaches, including those at Missouri. He started speaking to Tigers coaches about twice a month, mainly through e-mail.

The decision to leave England was made difficult because of the family and friends with whom Scott would lose regular touch. His dream is to play professionally, and that wasn’t likely to happen without coming to America.

“In England, you either carry on with college or you carry on with golf,” Scott said. “I couldn’t do both.”

A redshirt sophomore, Scott was one of the Tigers’ top golfers this season. He said the culture adjustment was tough at times and he became lonely. He quickly added that the loneliness was in part because his game was in a rut and evaporated when he improved.

Because there is more at stake playing in the United States, like professional dreams, Scott said the game is more serious here. He said more players from his home country are jumping at the chance to join the competitive atmosphere. A 2002-03 NCAA survey found the number of foreign athletes in Division I, II and III playing men’s golf had nearly doubled from three years earlier, from 209 to 407.

“There are definitely a lot of people doing it, because there is no college athletics in England,” Scott said. “You go to school or you go pro. Within the last few years, there’s really a lot more people coming over.”

Although her sister, Elin, was at Missouri, the closest Maria Ohlsson had been to Columbia before fall 2001 was a brief family visit to Chicago. That’s when, upon the advice of her sister, she chose to leave their hometown of Vetlanda, Sweden, and join the Tigers.

Even with a family member to show her the ropes, Maria Ohlsson said the start of her freshman year was tough. She struggled learning the many unusual expressions of American English. She needed time to adjust to a new culture and being away from family and friends.

Maria Ohlsson, a rising senior, is one of the Tigers’ top golfers and tied for fourth at the Big 12 Conference Tournament in April. Despite her rough transition, she would advise anyone in the situation she was in a few years ago to make the same choice. She would like to play professionally, something that would have been nearly impossible staying in Sweden.

“I think it’s a good experience to come over here and play,” Maria Ohlsson said. “The LPGA is where all the best players play. That is where you want to play.”

The rise in foreign athletes isn’t limited to golf. The number of foreign athletes in Divisions I, II and III playing tennis has gone from 1,306 to 1,889 from 1999-2000 and 2002-03. The number of foreign players playing baseball has gone from 93 to 221.

These players come from around the world. Players from Canada can gain exposure for themselves in a way Europeans cannot, because coaches can drive north of the border, which reduces recruiting expenses, and athletes can drive south to showcase their skills.

Tyler Williams, a sophomore outfielder for Missouri, played high school baseball in Delta, British Columbia. He gained the interest of several Division I coaches by playing in various tournaments in the United States. He was going to attend a junior college in Louisiana until that college’s coach, Sean McCann, left to become Missouri’s pitching coach.

Because Missouri had a few open scholarships, Williams had a spot on the Tigers’ roster. That was about two weeks before he planned to start junior college classes.

“I didn’t even know what conference Missouri was in,” Williams said.

The lack of knowledge didn’t matter. Williams earned his way into the starting lineup as a freshman, hitting .260 and helping the Tigers to the NCAA Tournament.

Williams didn’t need to come to Missouri; the Florida Marlins drafted him out of high school. He has a brother playing at a junior college in California and wanted to improve his skills while gaining a college education. He estimated about 300 to 400 Canadians are playing in the United States, a number that might be low considering junior college and NAIA athletes are not considered in the NCAA survey.

“Every year, it’s getting bigger and bigger,” Williams said.

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