Story by Mike Flores
Photographs by Andres Martinez
International students from all over the globe have created a home at the University of Texas at El Paso, where 57 international student-athletes are enrolled. A huge part of UTEP revolves around sports.
UTEP’s most successful sport is basketball, bringing the school its one and only championship in any major sport. The head coach of the 1966 team, Don Haskins, made El Paso a must-talk subject as he was the first coach to ever use a starting team that consisted of all African-American players. The year of 1966 changed sports forever and UTEP started the revolution.
Today, UTEP basketball, both men’s and women’s, have a total of nine athletes from another country–four from the men’s side and five from the women’s unit.
One of UTEP’s top players is the 7-foot-1 center from Ontario,
Canada, Matt Willms. He ended his junior season as the team’s top shot blocker and third-leading scorer.
However, the 235-pounder had already signed to play for Texas A&M
in College Station, Texas, when he decided he wanted to come to the U.S., but as he explored El Paso and what it has to offer, Matt changed his mind about which college to attend. He says he knew he was making the right decision and has been under head coach Tim Floyd since 2012.
“In Canada, there are no sports scholarships. There’s no such things as full rides in Canada. Here everything is funded and people get the opportunity to play for free and go to school at the same time,” Matt says. “We get our traveling funded, we get cost of attendance on top of that, and we actually have a practice facility here. There is so much talent in Canada, but a lot of the athletes just stay there because U.S. schools don’t look at them as much.”
It was in 11th grade when Matt played his first year of organized basketball. He fell in love with the sport, but it never crossed his mind that putting a ball through a hoop could get him to where he is now—competing for a Division 1 school and graduating from college.
The transition from Canada to the El Paso lifestyle was an obstacle Matt dealt with when he first arrived, but he quickly got over that and wouldn’t hesitate to make the Sun City his home if he had to do it again.
“I adjusted fine to the way of life over here,” Matt says. “I miss the bodies of water. I’m an early riser, so I would wake up early and just take a stroll along the lakes and all. Here, you can’t really find that. It’s what I miss the most from home.”
Like always, basketball got Matt through everything.With one year remaining at UTEP, Matt has a lot on his mind–from his goals and ambitions to what the future holds for him outside of sports.
“I probably plan on leaving after my last year, because I love to explore and see the world. But who knows, I could end up here later on in the road, hopefully coaching or something. I love El Paso, I love the surroundings here, I love the people. It’s been so special for me here,” Matt says. “When I came here for my very first visit, I knew UTEP was the place for me.”
Another of UTEP’s standout international stars is part of the duo that was ranked as high as No. 48 in the nation in tennis, Milou Pietersz.
Milou moved to Spain when she was 11 years old from Arnhem, the Netherlands. Before attending UTEP, she took her talents to the Nicholls State in Thibodaux, Louisiana. When she transferred to UTEP, Milou was just beginning her junior year.
Since she has been moving all of her life, the transfer student says her transition from Louisiana to El Paso was not like her move from overseas to the U.S. “I was a bit overwhelmed before I moved here because it’s a big city and I didn’t know anything yet. Before I moved to the United States, I didn’t know of good schools to attend. Nicholls State is such a small school compared to UTEP, and there’s not much to do in that small city, so I really, really like El Paso,” Milou says. “I was super excited to see the rest of the world and see different surroundings.”
In Spain and the Netherlands, there is no such thing as high school athletics—the schools recommend only one hour of physical education a day. Moving out of her home country was a must for Milou. She says playing in a competitive division and earning her bachelor’s degree was just a distant dream if she had stayed in her home country. “In my home country, I could never play this much tennis and get my degree, too. It was a must for me to come here and play the sport I love. It was an opportunity that I had to take, no doubt,” Milou says.
As Milou enjoyed a great junior season, being ranked multiple times in doubles with her partner Vivienne Kulicke, she expects larger results for her final season. Next year, as she graduates, Milou wants to be nationally ranked in both doubles and singles.
In golf, UTEP’s reigning Conference USA Golfer of the Year for the 2015-16 season, Frederik Dreier, says he feels as if he walks around campus as a celebrity. Frederik, who was born in Birkerød, Denmark, was only the school’s fourth-ever tennis player to receive the prestigious award of C-USA Player of the Year.
“There are so many more opportunities, and the people in U.S. treat you like professionals over here. The coaches and everyone will do anything to help you succeed, and it’s cool that schools here allow people to live out their dreams here,” Frederik says. “I’m going to go pro after I graduate, and I wouldn’t mind living in El Paso either.“
Before making a name for himself on the collegiate level, Frederik was first introduced to golf by his grandparents at the age of 12 and he has been playing ever since. He heard about UTEP from a friend, Martin Simonsen, a former Miner golfer, who convinced him to email head coach Scott Lieberwirth. “I’ve been living away from home before college, with golf schools here and there. I was excited, and I was ready for change,” Frederik says. “People here are so kind and welcoming, and actually talk to each other on the streets. In Denmark, people are very reserved. I love the culture in El Paso.”
Now, Frederik, a participant in the NCAA regionals, who also led the league with a stroke average of 71.8, is high on the academic scale, as well. The senior golfer has earned the rights to the Conference USA Commissioner’s Honor Roll every year.
“The way you can combine your sport and the academics over here is as good as it gets,” Frederik says. “I feel like if I stayed in Denmark, I would not have the opportunity to do both, I would have to pick school or sports, but it’s different here.”
Frederik says he doesn’t think of home much anymore because he is motivated to better his life and he is in the “zone” at UTEP. He relishes that sports are nonstop in the U.S. and hopes to make his family proud by becoming a role model.
Hockey freshman Dominik Taras sacrificed a free education in Europe to continue playing the sport he fell in love with.
Dominik is from the Czech Republic and is in his first full year in the U.S. His first stop was in Oklahoma, where he rented a room with a stranger to pursue his dream of becoming a professional hockey athlete. Dominik’s friend, El Paso Rhinos player Arturas Lukaitis, convinced him to try out for the Miners hockey club.
“I mainly came to America because in the Czech Republic they don’t have college sports there. The college in Europe is free, so I had to deal with missing out on something free, but I wanted to continue playing hockey more than anything. I didn’t want to stop after 18 years of playing,” Dominik says. “I was excited to try something new, but I was scared to move because it’s so far from home.”
The European hockey player, who arrived in El Paso in January of this year, has dealt with his biggest obstacle, time. Keeping in touch with his family back home has been difficult for him because of the eight-hour time difference. He says he needs to stay up late just to be able to talk to his loved ones.
“The time change sucks. It’s hard, but I don’t get homesick as much because I’m really close to my teammates,” Dominik says.
After Dominik’s freshman season—and UTEP’s second year as a hockey club—he helped the Miners to win first place in their conference with a 31-3 record and got a chance to participate in the regionals, where their season came up short at the hands of Denver.
“I want to graduate, and hopefully play in the pros someday. If that doesn’t happen, I will have my bachelor’s and will try and stay here in the U.S. for work opportunities and get some experience,” Dominik says.
Los estudiantes internacionales han creado un hogar en la Universidad de Texas en El Paso, donde actualmente hay 57 estudiantes atletas inscritos. Una gran parte de UTEP gira alrededor de los deportes.
El año de 1966 cambió a los deportes para siempre y UTEP comenzó esa revolución con el único campeonato que ha ganado en uno de los deportes más grandes de Estados Unidos. El coach del equipo de 1966, Don Haskins, hizo de El Paso una conversación obligatoria en cuanto a basquetbol colegial—fue el primero en usar un equipo conformado solamente por jugadores afroamericanos.
Uno de los mejores jugadores de UTEP viene de Ontario, Canadá. Matt Willms, quien juega la posición centro en el equipo de basquetbol de UTEP, terminó su tercera temporada como el mejor bloqueador de tiro del equipo y el tercer mejor anotador. “En Canadá, no hay becas deportivas. Aquí hay fondos para todo y la gente tiene la oportunidad de jugar gratis e ir a la escuela al mismo tiempo”, Matt dice. “Hay mucho talento en Canadá, pero muchos atletas se quedan ahí porque las escuelas estadounidenses no los ven demasiado”.
Matt planea irse después de su último año, pero no descarta la posibilidad de quedarse en El Paso porque ama los alrededores y la gente de esta ciudad.
Otra estrella internacional es Milou Pietersz, posicionada en el número 48 de la nación en tenis. Milou se mudó a España a los 11 años de Arhem, Países Bajos. En ambos países, no existen los deportes en preparatoria. “En mi país, no podría jugar tanto tenis y obtener mi título también. Era un deber venir aquí y jugar el deporte que amo”, Milou dice.
Para el siguiente año, Milou quiere clasificarse en posiciones altas a nivel nacional en competencias dobles e individuales.
Frederik Dreier, golfista de la Conferencia USA en la temporada 2015-16 de UTEP, dice sentirse como una celebridad cuando camina por el campus. Nacido en Birkerød, Dinamarca, fue el cuarto golfista de UTEP en recibir el prestigioso premio de jugador del año. “Los entrenadores y todos harán lo que sea para ayudarte a tener éxito, y está genial que escuelas aquí permitan que la gente viva sus sueños aquí”, Frederik dice.
Dominik Taras, estudiante de primer año, nacido en la República Checa, sacrificó su educación gratuita en Europa por continuar en el deporte que ama, hockey. “Vine a América principalmente porque en la República Checa no hay deportes colegiales. La educación es gratis, así que tuve que lidiar con perderme de algo gratis, pero quería seguir jugando hockey más que nada”.
Después de la primera temporada de Dominik—y el segundo año de UTEP como club de hockey—él ayudó a los Mineros a ganar el primer lugar en la conferencia, con un récord de 31-3 y pudo participar en competencias regionales.