Towson international athletes navigate challenges to succeed in their collegiate sport

By Courtney Ott, Sports Editor

Many athletes across the world attend colleges in the United States to live out their dream of competing in the NCAA. They go months or years without going to their home countries, facing challenges in the adjustment to the new environment. 

Loneliness and fear can overwhelm an international athlete, making the move especially hard. 

Three Towson international athletes talked about their experiences with their move to Towson and how it affected their day-to-day lives.

Irbe Lazda, a middle blocker for Towson Volleyball, decided to take her game to the collegiate level in the U.S. after growing up in Marupe, Latvia. She started at the University of Texas at El Paso in 2019.

“I think it’s different for everyone but for me, it was definitely hard once you get here… my English was pretty good, or at least I thought when I came here, but you really don’t get taught those little everyday things in school, so it was still an adjustment,” said Lazda.

In her first two years at UTEP, Lazda faced serious injuries that prevented her from fully playing a single season. She decided to transfer and entered her name in the portal, eventually choosing Towson.

“I decided that the East Coast would be closer to home, it would be a completely different environment than it was in El Paso and the volleyball level was good,” Lazda said. “My last team, there were no internationals, so Towson volleyball program had a bunch of internationals which I thought would be a benefit too. There would be people who can relate and understand me.”

Lazda has now been at Towson, far away from her family, for two years and had to adapt to the new situation.

“There have been multiple times where even if I’m struggling with something or can’t figure something out, you can’t really tell that to your parents because there isn’t much that they can do,” she said. 

While adjusting, Lazda said she also faced differences in volleyball. She explained that in the U.S., the volleyball community is a larger system than in Latvia. There are also small differences in the game at the collegiate level, with more subs and even having to switch the position she plays.

Even though the change in environment was difficult to adjust to, Lazda found comfort in living with two other international athletes on the team.

Midfielder Milana Zizakovic on the Towson Women’s Lacrosse team grew up in Alberta, Canada. 

Zizakovic said her dad, who went to Ohio State for football, inspired her to go to college in the U.S. for lacrosse.

“I thought maybe I can go and make an impact on American teams too,” she said.

Growing up, Zizakovic played ice hockey. She took up lacrosse during her junior year of high school. 

In Canada, Zizakovic mostly played box lacrosse, which is played inside on a smaller field, using different sticks and different rules. At Towson, she had to adjust to a different playing style.

“We played more of a fast pace sort of game, and we weren’t very good with our stick skills, so we mostly relied on our athleticism to get goals and play,” Zizakovic said. “Here, it is more strategic for sure, so it was definitely different and a mindset switch. I would be in film every day with my coach and be like, ‘how do I play and how am I supposed to think or if this happens what am I supposed to do?’ It was more so knowing of the game that was really hard to learn.”

Outside of lacrosse, Zizakovic found herself missing her family. The longest time she could spend at home was over summer break. She would go home for winter break but would have to return in early January for the team’s preseason.

While the new lifestyle took adjusting to, Zizakovic found comfort in her coaches and teammates at Towson to help make the transition easier.

“Although I feel like the States and Canada are very similar in ways, they are also very different in ways, and just the little things took adjusting to,” said Zizakovic. “It was definitely intimidating coming to a new country by myself where I didn’t know anyone.”

She said her coaches checked in on her often, and she found even more support with fellow-Canadian Julia Porter, a senior attack player on the 2022 team.

“It was definitely really nice to have another Canadian on the team, especially for my first year being there so it felt like, although I was coming to this whole new place by myself, there was someone like me, and we could connect like that,” Zizakovic said.

Antonia Lawson, a junior on the Towson Women’s Tennis team, came to Towson from Wellington, New Zealand. Lawson’s sister, Amelia, was a senior on the tennis team during her freshman year and was one of the main reasons why she chose to come to Towson.

“It helped a lot having her here,” said Lawson. “She went through it all before I did, so she showed me how everything is.”

On top of the hard move, Lawson came to Towson during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. She said she struggled to get a visa when New Zealand was in full lockdown, and wasn’t sure she’d be able to come.

During her freshman year, there were eight international players on the Towson Women’s Tennis team. Lawson said that having teammates going through the same experiences helped make the transition to the U.S. easier and made the experience more special.

Once her sister graduated, Lawson had to handle the hardship of being at Towson by herself. 

“I didn’t go home for all of last year, which was quite hard, and I’m not sure when the next time I’ll be able to go home,” said Lawson. “[It’s hard] being really far from home and figuring everything out on your own.” 

She also said her coaches at Towson have supported her during her first two years.

“I really liked Towson from the beginning,” Lawson said. “I struggled a lot with injuries and illness throughout my time here, but Towson has always been super supportive since the start from coaches and always being there for me, and that definitely made me want to stay.”

Even though the challenges international athletes face are difficult, Towson international athletes are living out their dreams to play in the U.S.

“The U.S. is really the only place that has college tennis like this,” said Lawson.


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