From September 2017
By Kate Blankinship
The UChicago Softball team kicked off their summer with a trip to Australia—a week-and-a-half journey that offered the players the chance to eat shrimp on the barbie with Australian state softball teams and snorkel through the Great Barrier Reef.
The team showed off their skills on the field, but training wasn’t their primary focus when they ventured abroad. Instead, the trip was about bonding, learning, and experiencing a new culture, said Coach Ruth Kmak. With the opportunity only available every four years, the women took full advantage of being thousands of miles from home.
The team had the chance to step on the field to play the Queensland team of Brisbane and the New South Wales team of Sydney, the Australian state teams that will soon compete for the national championship. Though the Australian team players and the Maroons are at different points in their careers, they all came to the field to play the same game. The Maroons took this opportunity to enjoy the new competition while changing up players’ positions, reminding them that the goal was to have fun.
“It was incredible to watch these women play against a strong Australian team, and it was even more enjoyable to listen to the conversations being had. [It was] a true learning experience for all,” assistant coaches Alyssa Davis and Alex Chiodo wrote in the team's travel blog about their game in Brisbane.
These conversations often occurred during post-game team dinners—which were highlights of the trip for Kmak. “They’re a great opportunity for our student athletes to sit down and talk to these players from another country,” she said about the beloved tradition.
Along with the enriching conversations came a lot of food, a perk for any athlete, but especially those having just played a game.
“After the game, we had a barbie put on by the opposing team, which was stock full of the works,” players Maggie O'Hara and Christie Ambrose wrote about dinner with the New South Wales team. Dinner featured sausages, chicken kabobs, fried fish, cheesy potatoes, pasta salad, salad, and garlic bread. We enjoyed a great dinner and great company getting to know the Sydney players and coaches and learning about what the natives do.”
From Brisbane, the team made their way to Cairns, where they ventured into the Outback. Their brief bout involved emu sightings, a traditional pub lunch, and cave explorations—a favorite experience for many of the team members.
“We visited two caves and saw the fossilized remains of the ancient coral reefs with hidden limestone labyrinths creating incredible underground worlds. We studied stalagmites and stalactites and learned about the bats and other wildlife living meters underground,” players Alexa Hanelin and Serena Moss wrote.
The next day the team went snorkeling through the Great Barrier Reef, learning about the ocean’s wildlife and debunking various myths about the Reef as they swam through the waters.
It’s experiences like seeing the Great Barrier Reef and exploring Bondi Beach in Sydney—the final leg of their trip—that will linger with the team long after they leave UChicago, Kmak said. The trips have also become growth opportunities for the players; Kmak added that adventurous and inquisitive UChicago students appreciate the opportunity to be free to explore new cultures as much as possible.
While UChicago supports teams’ efforts to take these types of journeys, it’s the coaching staff and athletes who make it possible with three years of planning. From fundraising to signing waivers and travel forms, it’s nonstop work until they’re on the plane.
Still, the payoff is worth it. “It’s an outstanding opportunity that we have because we’re at a great university that supports and values those types of growth experiences,” Kmak said.
This year’s trip was not the team’s first. Over the past 16 years, the softball team has ventured to Australia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Spain, each trip involving a new team and different adventures. However each trip has left players with stronger bonds, new experiences, and stories to be told.