More than one country forms Cougar Nation

International student-athletes Daan Brinkman, Leigh Whittaker, Kees Heemskerk, Katharina Boehm (left to right) tell us about their journeys' to the United States (Kate Butler/GSO)

For some of our athletes, coming to the College of Charleston was not the easiest process; their journeys’ to CofC started over 3,000 miles away from the campus. Their stories consisted of stacks of emails, applications to the College, trips to the U.S. lasting only 48 hours, game style changes, new appreciations, travel differences, and making that final decision to come to CofC.

International representation can be found on more than half of the team rosters at CofC, with athletes representing the Caribbean to Oceania and everywhere in between.

Given the opportunity to sit down with CofC student-athletes Katharina Boehm (Munich), Daan Brinkman (Amsterdam), Kees Heemskerk (Zaandam, Holland), and Leigh Whittaker (Baden-Baden, Germany), we have the privilege of hearing exactly what coming to the United States as an international athlete is like. Golfers Henry Smart (Epsom Surrey, England) and Regina Rosas (Durango, Mexico) also shared what coming to the United States as an international student-athlete is like.

Brinkman and Heemskerk are each former soccer players to the Ajax Youth Academy and were friends before they came to CofC. Boehm and Whittaker also knew each other before they came to CofC through golfing and would cross paths often given the German golfing community’s small size.

These athletes pursued an American college to further develop their respective sport, and they each discovered that a U.S. college would also give them the opportunity to study while furthering their athletic careers.

The obvious question…how did they find CofC?

Heemskerk: It’s a long story but to make it short: I played at Ajax two years ago and I didn’t want to sign a contract there because I’m a goalkeeper and it’s difficult to get any playing time as a young goalkeeper. If they see a goalkeeper that is 25, 26 years old they consider that a young goalkeeper. I was 18 at that time, so I knew I wasn’t going to get any playing time at one of the biggest clubs in Holland so I was looking around and I don’t know for some reason I came up with America. I think I saw it on TV or something like that and I emailed a couple schools here and one school forwarded my email to College of Charleston and they got in contact with me right away.

Whittaker: I did not really find it. Coach found me. One day I got an email from him asking if I am interested to play for him. I came for a visit. My first time in the U.S. for 48 hours, and I fell in love with this city, and told him I will come. As far as I know it was a Swedish lady who told him about me. I met her in England through my uncle. I told her I want to play college golf, but that I have no contacts over there. She used to be at Pinehurst where coach hosts a tournament. She told him about me and luckily he was interested.

Daan Brinkman

Brinkman and Boehm each had a path already cleared for them with Heemskerk and Whittaker having already been playing at the College, however, they still had to make their own decisions and find trust in the people they encountered along the way.

Boehm: There were two other German girls on the team before, and coach asked if them if they would know another girl who could start playing for the team in 2009, and I was trying to find a school. I wanted to go somewhere where I knew it was going to be nice. So I trusted them and it was perfect. The right decision!

Boehm told us a little bit about the Germany school system and said that options for an athlete become increasingly limited for a golfer after high school.

Boehm: It was not a tough decision because I knew exactly what I wanted to do. In Germany you have to, after high school, decide whether you’re gonna’ turn pro or if you’re going to a college and you can’t do both at the same time because there is just not enough time; people, as I said, they don’t really care about sports so that’s why professors wouldn’t understand why you would miss classes for a golf tournament. So that was the main reason for me to come here, so I could do both at the same time and after college figure out what I wanted to do.

For Brinkman, the soccer world presented him with two options: continue playing in Europe, or try something new and go to the United States to play college ball. I asked him if the decision was any easier knowing that Heemskerk was already here at the College.

Brinkman: Well easier, but not an easy decision because I thought of it before, going to America and studying, but I didn’t have the guts to really come and do it and then Kees did it. I tried to play at another club at Holland, another professional club, but it didn’t really work out. Then I contacted some people. There is a coach, he’s a youth director at D.C. United, and he asked me ‘do you want to study’ and then I thought of Kees, and I started talking to Kees. Then eventually I started talking to Troy [Lesesne], the assistant coach, and he is a very good recruiter.

Heemskerk added onto the idea of how important it is to find trust in the people you meet during the process. He also compared recruiting approaches between the United States and Holland.

Heemskerk: In Holland they’re like: “I’ll give you an offer right now, if you don’t wanna come, then you’re not coming and we’ll find someone else.” Here it’s like: “We really want you, would you at least consider it” and keep talking about it and ask me questions. Troy answered every question I asked …I don’t know…I think I asked him a 100 questions or 200 questions a week and he answered every single question.

The athletes weighed the pros and cons; however it was the thought of being able to continue perfecting their talent, while getting an education that really set the idea of going to an American college above the other options.

Leigh Whittaker and Katharina Boehm

Smart: It wasn’t an easy decision to go to school across the pond but I knew it was the most beneficial for my golfing and academic career and coming from boarding school I was used to being away from home for prolonged periods of time.

The realization of being so far from home was not too unfathomable for Whittaker either. She told us a little about her upbringing and said she was raised to be independent, it’s something her parents instilled in her and she treasured the opportunity to let talent and opportunity meet character.

Rosas also noted how she is embracing the time she now has to be grow as a person.

Rosas: I feel it is part to mature and learn how to be independent in my life. 

Just a plane ride later and each of the athletes were able to embrace a new beginning as well as explore a new cultural life style. As it were, Whittaker and Boehm found just what they were looking for. Brinkman and Heemskerk, however, had to adjust to a few game style changes.

Heemskerk: We play a lot slower here in America. We used to play along the back and build our play a lot in Holland. It’s more of a working game, and in Holland it’s more of an intelligent game.

Brinkman: It’s more technical in Holland and the big difference is, we try to build and here, they try to get forward as quick as they can.

In addition to the game style difference there is also a different appreciation for soccer in America.

Brinkman: It’s much bigger in Europe.

Heemskerk: There is a lack of appreciation here. They don’t really understand the sport. I hear people say they should play soccer with two balls or I think they should have time outs or I think they should have this or that.

Brinkman: I think in Holland soccer is the biggest sport and, here in America, they have America football, and we don’t have that at all. I think we have one team in Amsterdam.

Heemskerk: No they eh…

Brinkman: They quit?

[The guys slightly began laughing as they recalled just how unpopular American football is in Holland compared to the U.S.]

Heemskerk: They quit because nobody came to games. We had a team called the Amsterdam Admirals and they used to play. There is a European League with German teams and that kinda stuff. They didn’t have money and they got no visitors so they quit.

BEHIND THE SCENE: Leigh Whittaker, Kees Heemskerk, and Daan Brinkman switch props during the photo shoot for G magazine (Kate Butler/GSO)

The attraction to soccer might not be as large in the United States compared to American football, but there is no question that CofC loves its soccer team as students and ticket holders pack the stands and line the soccer field at Patriots Point.

Meanwhile, the golfers found an overall increased amount of appreciation for their sport in America. Both Whittaker and Boehm were surprised to find golf being aired on regular TV.

Boehm: Sports are so big here and I mean you can watch college soccer and every single sport on TV and in Germany it’s just the professionals. Not even golf, they don’t even show golf on TV Not even the professionals. It’s a big deal here and that’s what I like.

She went on to further state that Germany pays close attention to details surrounding the player’s golf swing. Unlike the United States, whose focus is primarily on a player’s feeling of their game, Germany is much more technically focused. Whittaker also added how the sport differs for the everyday golfer as well as for a college athlete.

Whittaker: First of all, Europe does not have official school sports. In high school, they have a few little competitions, but in the university, they do not. The whole study system is different, but when you have your final exams at the end, you are not allowed to miss it for a sports event. Secondly, everyone here in the U.S. has played golf before or tried it. It is such a different perspective, because everyone is able to play it here. In Germany, it is still a little bit of a privilege to play golf.  

Smart also touched on the fact that golf is a common thread among many Americans, noticing a much more leisure-like approach to the game.

Smart: The Americans have a much more laid back approach to golf which I like.

Rosas noted the difference in the depth of competition found in the U.S. to be much different than in Mexico.

Rosas: What changes is just the competition level. Here in the U.S., there is a higher level of difficulty in women’s golf. 

Each of the athletes went in to what made the decision easier and for the ladies it had much to do with the weather. Whittaker and Boehm can tell you first hand that paradise and palm trees are not always the background of a golf course.

Whittaker: The weather is a big thing. I was out there when it was snowing, when it was raining, when it was freezing.

When asked if the weather was a draw to the city, Boehm’s answer was easy and effortless. With a huge smile and a thrill in her voice she said, “Yes, of course it was!”

Whittaker told us that the climate in Charleston provides golfers with more time to prepare their game, merely because practicing conditions are more suitable in areas like Charleston. In addition to the weather appeal, the location of the city also helped make the decision easier for the athletes.

Whittaker: I decided I wanted to go to the U.S. to be able to play college golf. I had a few criteria about the college and golf and Charleston had them all. The East Coast probably was the better choice because of the six-hour time difference to home. In the West, it is about nine hours. Of course I miss my parents, family, and friends, but this is an enormous opportunity that helps me to get where I want to be later. I fell in love with this city.

Traveling is another aspect of life that changed for each of the athletes once they came to America. The opportunity to travel in Europe is much easier due to the condensed geographical make-up. Boehm, Heemskerk, and Brinkman each had a laundry list of places they had been.

Boehm: We would leave on Thursday and be back on Sunday, and we would go to Spain and practice there. Then we went to Italy too, and the tournaments were pretty everywhere in Europe. We went to France to play the French girls, and we went to Scotland to play the British girls, and then I played the Spanish girls in Spain. I guess here, since the United States is so big, you don’t really go out of the country, and since Germany is really small you compete with European players and teams.

Again when Brinkman and Heemskerk were asked the question: did you get to travel while in Europe, they began a lengthy list of countries they had played, and where one left off the other was able to quickly chime in and continue naming places they had been.

Brinkman: We played some tournaments in Italy, France…

Heemskerk: …Greece…I was at Ajax from when I was 12 and we’ve been to so many places and I’ve traveled all around Europe, Hong Kong and Russia.

Heemskerk also shared his changed perspective of travel now that he has had to endure lengthy bus rides around the U.S.

Heemskerk: If ever anyone would have told me in Holland “Let’s drive to Paris tomorrow,” I’d say, “No, it’s 5 hours, are you crazy?” But now if I go back to Holland and they say, “You wanna drive to Paris?” I’d say, “It’s just 5, let’s go right now.” It’s just so different and in Holland you are just not used to traveling at all. If we would go to Paris with Ajax we would take the plane and we would not drive more than 2 hours.

Games, practice and travel are only a portion of each of these student-athlete’s lives at the College; there is also the people they have met and life they live outside of the game. When deciding to finally book that plane ticket to United States, each of the student-athletes touched on a certain element they found in Charleston that let them know CofC was a step in the right direction.

Whittaker: The city is really European I think. I never really seen any place like that in America either, it’s just special, unique, and I just love it.

Boehm noted the value of the people she has met though her golfing career.

Boehm: I’ve seen so many players and I’ve met so many cool people just because of me playing golf. Like here, all of our donors or all the people that support us are amazing and I think that is something I will have for life. 

Heemskerk and Brinkman stressed the fact that it was people like Troy Lesesne and head soccer coach Ralph Lundy that made them feel welcome and taken care of as student-athletes of the College. They also said, once they got here, the team as a whole was incredibly welcoming.

Heemskerk: It just felt like home.

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