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Winning Moves: Athletes are going wherever it takes

By Jeff Lee | August 3rd, 2009



[This article was published on Immigration Here and There in June, 2006]

Dribbling around a well-timed screen by one of his Northwestern University teammates at the three-point arc, Vedran Vukusic, the squarely built, 6′-8″ forward from Split, Croatia, squares toward the basket, jumps straight up and releases a fluid shot over the outstretched fingertips of his defenders. The arms of several hundred rapt student fans shoot into the air, and then start pumping with joy when the shot swooshes through the basket. Chalk up three more points for the Big Ten men’s basketball regular season scoring leader.

In a conference filled with American-bred stars and slam-dunking big men, Vukusic, 23, has become an unlikely student hero and a bona fide basketball star. His smooth shooting from the perimeter and slashing runs to the basket make him a potent scoring threat to which few opponents have an answer. But for a young man in a sometimes war-torn Eastern European country, the transition to NCAA student-athlete and NBA prospect was far from a sure thing.

Vukusic is just one example of a global movement in athletes leaving their home country to pursue their prospects in a more welcoming or lucrative environment. But with the rewards come challenges, not least of which are the hurdles they face during the immigration and travel process.

When two planes struck the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001, Vukusic realized that obtaining a student visa for his trip to Northwestern might not be as easy as he thought. He had been planning to go to the American embassy in the Croatian capital of Zagreb on Sept. 11, less than two weeks before the start of classes and only 3 days before new student orientation.

“They shut it down for three days,” Vukusic says of the embassy with only a hint of an accent. “I didn’t think I was ever going to get a visa.” But he returned three days later with his proof of enrollment at the university, and, much to his surprise, walked out with the visa he needed to travel to the United States. “I was pretty shocked because I thought they wouldn’t let anyone in,” he says.

His transition to life in Evanston, Ill., was tough at first. Though he knew some English, he was far from fluent and he struggled with classes. He would translate the professor’s English to Croatian in his mind, and then back into English for note-taking. “I just wouldn’t have time for the whole process,” he says. He also had to adjust to American food–though Split is the second largest city in Croatia with about 250,000 residents, it has only one McDonald’s. “I was at Burger King about three times a week my freshman year, which probably wasn’t the best thing,” he says.

Vukusic had more success on the basketball court, despite a recurring shoulder injury that limited his action. He led the team in three-point shooting percentage, making 23 of 49 shots, which would have placed him second in the Big Ten if he had made two more three-pointers for the requisite one per game needed to be ranked. Another shoulder injury forced him to sit out the 2002-03 season. But he returned with a vengeance the following year, finishing the season with an all-Big Ten honorable mention and seventh in the Big Ten in overall scoring. He jumped to fourth in the Big Ten in scoring and to the all-Big Ten third team when he started all 31 games in his third year of basketball.

But he considers his most recent season, in which he was named to the all-Big Ten second team and led the conference in scoring, his crowning achievement. Of course, with a match-up against Penn State at the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis coming up on Thursday and a potential invitation to the National Invitational Tournament on the line, he and the Wildcat basketball squad have more work to do. “If we made the NIT, or any kind of postseason, that would be even better,” he says.

Regardless of how his team fares beyond the end of regular season play, Vukusic has been thrilled with the opportunities that playing basketball in the United States has given him. If he had stayed in Croatia, he says he would probably have played for a local semi-professional club or tried to land in one of the European leagues. Now he’s a prospect to land on an NBA team. “It’s a big difference between going pro five years ago and now,” he says. “My chances are better for a higher contract. I wouldn’t have improved my game as much if I wasn’t going hard against Big Ten competition every day.”

He says his chances of getting that NBA contract depend on how he performs in workouts and invitational tournaments after the season, as well as on what kind of players the professional teams are looking for. But even if he doesn’t make it in America, he’ll continue to play overseas, and he’d eventually like to play for the Croatian national team. It’s a chance he may not have had if he had stayed at home.

“If I had the chance I would do the same thing again,” he says.

*****

In a loud, crowded pub in southwest London, 20-year-old Jonathan Dugger handily works the bar, pouring pints and joking with patrons as if he’s had years of experience. He’ll stay late into the night, cleaning glasses and closing down the bar, eager to get home and get some sleep.

The next day he’ll wake up and train for his dream job: professional soccer player.

As the grandson of an English Premiere League footballer, Dugger has soccer in his blood and a talent for the goalkeeper position. He was a standout at his California community college, and coaches and friends advised him to try and play with an American club.

One of the ironies about international soccer, however, is that while America is a traditional athletic powerhouse, its soccer game still lags behind the rest of the world. Besides, Dugger would not settle for anything other than the Premiership. The play, the money, everything is better about English soccer, he said. “And the fans — the fans go crazy for the sport,” he adds.

After his first season of play at American River College in Sacramento, Dugger received a call from Hans Segers, the goalkeeper coach for London-based professional club Tottenham Hotspur. Segers told him they would pay for his plane ticket to come to London for a tryout. Dugger was ecstatic. “At that point I broke a wall going crazy,” he says. “I called up about 15 of my friends and said ‘I’m ****ing going to play with the pro clubs!’”

But his first tryout for an English club made him more nervous than he expected. He was taking shots from some of the most famous soccer players in the world and he wasn’t used to the new field or the brand new professional balls. “I just couldn’t hold on to the football,” he says.

Tottenham decided not to offer him a roster spot. While the goalkeeper coach offered to recommend him to other teams in the league, the young aspirant must live on his own while he waits for his chance. For a young man living in a foreign country, that can be a formidable challenge. “It’s been tough finding a place to live, learning about money, learning how life works, almost,” he says. “I took what I thought was a step off the deep end. ‘Cut me off, I’m going for broke.’”

To make matters worse, Dugger is running out of time to make his dream come true. He received a blue card, similar to a green card in America, to work in the United Kingdom for up to six months through the British Universities North American Club. He has made contact with several other clubs in the city and another team near Liverpool, but he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to stay in the country if he doesn’t land with a team before the six-month period ends. Perhaps he’ll go back to the United States and try out with some American clubs. Maybe he’ll find another way to return to London to try out with some smaller teams.

“Right now, the dream has just sort of fizzled out,” Dugger says. “I’m not really disappointed I didn’t make it with Tottenham. I just feel like I could have done better.”

*****

Dugger’s story speaks to a larger trend in athletic migration. Western Europe, already the top destination for struggling workers looking for a well-paying job, has become a magnet for aspiring professional athletes looking to make it big.

Many, like Dugger, come seeking money or fame that they could never find in their home country. For some, the move pays off.

Trecia Smith, a 30-year-old Jamaican triple jumper, moved to London two years ago from the University of Pittsburgh to be closer to the larger international athletic competitions. In the process she found a coach who turned her into one of the most successful jumpers in the world. “It’s paid off in big dividends,” she says. “I have a coach who understands the triple jump really well, and he’s allowed me to understand the triple jump really well, as well.”

Her triple jump best has improved by almost a meter since arriving in the country and in August she won a gold medal at the World Championships in Helsinki.

Perhaps her biggest hurdle? Immigration. Smith says her visa reads “For work with IAAF,” the world governing body for track and field, and she must apply for a new one each year to return to Britain. She was denied the last time she applied in Jamaica. “They thought that for why I’m here I need a work permit, and unfortunately I can’t apply for a work permit without an employer on my behalf,” she says. “So while I was training in South Africa I went back and reapplied and got the visa.”

While she eventually was able to return to Britain simply by applying at a different embassy, it seemed to her like a case of two officers applying the same rules in different ways. “Or maybe the lady was having a really bad day and unfortunately she took it out on me,” she adds. “I think it stinks. The Jamaican Athletic Federation is just right around the corner, so they could have called to verify who I was. So for them to have denied me that visa left a bad taste. A really, really bad taste.”

But while Smith still competes for her native Jamaica, it’s remarkable how much smoother the immigration process can be for athletes actively sought by their destination countries.

Zola Budd, a South African distance runner, is perhaps the most famous historic example. Budd made a controversial move to compete for Britain in 1984, resulting in protests from anti-apartheid demonstrators and a race marred by a collision and boos at the Los Angeles Olympic Games.

In fact, the entire notion of international sports may be changing as athletes increasingly live and move across multiple boarders. Middle Eastern countries like Bahrain and Qatar make little secret of their recruitment of African runners, who often change their names when they migrate from Africa. Saif Saaeed Shaheen, for example, is better known for his defection from Kenya to Qatar in 2003, when he changed his name from Stephen Cherono, than for his world record in the 3,000-meter steeplechase. He isn’t the only one–about 40 Kenyan runners have given up their Kenyan nationality to move abroad, according to a Voice of American report, many to oil-rich countries Qatar and Bahrain, which offer them citizenship, a salary and generous perks.

*****

But not everyone makes the move purely for financial reasons. Lornah Kiplagat, one of the best female distance runners in the world, was born in a small village in Kenya, but claimed full Dutch citizenship in 2003 after her marriage to Dutch manager Pieter Langerhorst.

Kiplagat’s success story is one of the bright spots in the globalization of professional athletics. Her acceptance into the Dutch running scene was made clear when she came to her new home country for the European Cross Country Championships in Tilburg in December, one of few races in which she’s competed in the Netherlands.

All eyes were glued to the course as she moved from third place after several laps to attain a runaway victory in the final lap, sending fans into a frenzy as she slapped hands on her way to the finish.

After the race, she spoke about the reasons behind her move and the rewards that come with competing for her new country. Her primary reason for the change in citizenship is simple: “It was easier for me to become Dutch than for Pieter to become Kenyan,” she says. Kiplagat had already been spending about half of her time in Europe training and competing in road races when she met her future husband in 1997. When they married in 2002, they decided to live where it would be most appropriate given Kiplagat’s cultural background–with Langerhorst in the Netherlands. “For me it was not a problem because in Kenya if you get married you have to go to your husband’s home, Kiplagat says.

She says that financial concerns never affected the decision; in fact, it’s more expensive for her live in the Netherlands. But the time she saves by not having to deal with visas is priceless. “I just wanted to be Dutch, and we did it,” she says. “I don’t spend more time going to embassies; I spend that time training. It’s easy and it’s relaxing.”

She’s faced little opposition to the move from her Kenyan compatriots. “They completely understand,” she says. “They appreciate when I go back there.”

That appreciation likely comes in part because of her founding of the High Altitude Training Center in Iten, Kenya, in 1999. The HATC serves as a training center for young Kenyan female athletes, giving them an opportunity to establish a career in running while also working on their academic skills. Beyond that, the training center attracts athletes from around the world who bring much-needed business to the community.

Perhaps the biggest benefit she’s seen from her move to the Netherlands is the ease with which she’s now able to qualify for international competition. Kenya has so many runners who can achieve world-class times that athletes are never sure until the last minute whether they’ll be going to the Olympics, she says. In the Netherlands she knows a year in advance that she’ll be competing in the Olympics, so she can do what it takes to be successful.

In the meantime, she’s never regretted her decision to become Dutch. “The Dutch people really appreciate me,” she says. “I feel Dutch completely.” But at the same time, she feels that she can represent the Kenyan community in a positive way. “I know what it is to be an African lady. I know what it is to be European. I feel like I can bring those things together, that I can be something in between, a messenger between the two. I’m not going to sit and turn my back on my community.”

And for now, following her win at the European Cross Country Championship, she’s thrilled to be swamped with adoring Dutch autograph-seekers and to be receiving calls of congratulations from Dutch fans–like her mother-in-law.

“Today could never have been better for me, to win the European Cross in your own country,” she says nearly an hour of autographs. “This was really the highlight of my career.”

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