Journey to the centre of the MAC: International athletes on their experience in a new country

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By Alex Baumgartner

As the only player from Oceania on the Ryerson men’s volleyball team, Greg Vukets, like other international athletes, left his home country to further his sports career.

“I come from a different background with different life experiences,” said Vukets. “I think the best part [about being an international athlete] is being able to bring something different to the table.”

Originally from New Zealand, Vukets has been a member of the Ryerson men’s volleyball team since the 2017-18 season. The fourth-year psychology student takes pride in being able to represent his home nation from nearly 14,000 kilometres away in Toronto. 

“I feel like I’m able to kind of represent my country over here a little bit,” said Vukets. “New Zealand’s not very well known, so [I’m] able to take my roots with me and insert them somewhere else.” 

According to Vukets, New Zealand doesn’t have university sports like North America, which often leads athletes to leave the country and play abroad. “In New Zealand if you’re good, you leave for university,” he said.

Since New Zealand is so far away from Canada, scouts didn’t see Vukets play in person until he took the liberty of sending coaches his game tapes, in hopes of being recruited. Thankfully, a few coaches got back to him.

“One coach said that I was the first person that he had ever recruited who he’d never seen play live,” he said.

When Vukets left New Zealand for Canada in 2017, he noticed a contrast between the two countries’ volleyball systems.

“In New Zealand, our [volleyball] infrastructure isn’t as polished or developed as the Canadian volleyball program,” said Vukets. “When I came to Canada, people were typically better coached, they were more refined in their skills and were better all around technical volleyball players.”

Many students who move abroad experience a culture shock; Vukets, however, actually found Canadian and New Zealand cultures quite similar.

“I feel like I’m able to kind of represent my country over here”

“Compared to other cultures around the world both [Canada and New Zealand] are quite a social culture,” said Vukets. “I got welcomed with open arms and it’s really nice.”

One of Vukets’ favourite moments as a Ram was winning a tough game against their local rivals, University of Toronto.

“We were missing our head coach so our assistant had to step in and we beat them 3-1 in their own gym,” said Vukets. “It’s always a battle playing U of T, the rival down the street so that one felt good.” 

While Vukets represents New Zealand at Ryerson, second-year business management student Tom Dumont does the same for France. Originally from Montreuil, the six-foot-seven guard played his rookie season with the men’s basketball team in 2019-20. 

Dumont spent a couple of months at Bridgton Academy in Maine before joining the Rams last season. He immediately saw differences in the way the game is played in North America compared to Europe.

“It’s definitely different, I would say it’s more fast and physical [in North America] and [there’s] more freedom or one-on-one situations,” said Dumont. “I think in France or Europe in general, the games are more organized and coaches like to run systems.”

Ryerson’s basketball team saw success last year, making it all the way to the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) playoffs before losing to the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees in the quarter-finals. Dumont’s favourite part of last season was seeing the team’s success down the stretch.

“I really enjoyed playing in the second half of the season. After the Christmas break, the team improved in a good way, we understood how to play together,” said Dumont. “It was a fun time to play with the team because the chemistry was pretty good.”

Dumont didn’t find it too troubling to adjust to the Canadian way of life when he came to Ryerson. The hardest part for him was the language barrier. 

“It’s my second year here in Toronto and my English is far from being perfect,” said Dumont. “It’s definitely the most challenging thing for me because I’m a little shy. It’s the only thing that kind of bothers me, to be honest.”

“I think in France or Europe in general, the games are more organized and coaches like to run systems”

Like Dumont, first-year business management student Zoe Kuck also made her way to Ryerson from France.

Kuck was supposed to be playing her rookie season for the women’s volleyball team this year, before the season was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Kuck spent 18 years in France before she moved to Canada last year. She played one season for Georgetown Impact Volleyball, an Ontario volleyball club, before making the jump to Ryerson.

In a normal season, Ryerson athletes would have multiple practices and workouts every week with the team. That hasn’t been possible this year with the multiple health and safety restrictions in place because of the pandemic. Despite the lack of facilities and the inability to have the entire team in Toronto, Kuck was still able to get in some valuable offseason training with the coaching staff before the facility closed due to further lockdowns.

“It felt really good to be with the team and the coaches, especially as a rookie since I didn’t really know anyone,” said Kuck.

Kuck was born and raised in Montpellier, a city in the south of France, but her mother was from Canada. Growing up, she would visit every summer and go to Canadian volleyball camps. These camps helped Kuck become familiar with the way volleyball was played in Canada, which helped her adjust when she came to Ryerson.

“Maybe compared to other international students, I didn’t feel like I had that much of a culture shock,” she said. 

One of the realities of being an international student is homesickness, which has only been compounded by the pandemic. For Kuck, not seeing her family has been one of the hardest things she’s dealt with at Ryerson.

“The hardest part [about being in Toronto] is it’s the longest I’ve been away from my family. I haven’t seen them in over a year,” said Kuck. “I was expecting to make a lot of new friends, but sadly that wasn’t really possible. Thankfully I have a great roommate and she’s allowed me to meet some great people.”

Only being in her first-year at Ryerson, Kuck’s journey in Canada is just getting started, and the 19-year-old is determined to make the most of her time with the women’s volleyball team.

“I hope to learn as much as I can from my coach and to grow from my experience of being on a good Canadian university volleyball team,” said Kuck. “I also hope I can experience as much of the culture here as possible and make good friends at Ryerson.”

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