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NCAA student-athletes take on the world

By Alexandra Assimon

NCAA.org

Chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” echoed through Kazan Arena.  A track and field student-athlete exclaimed, “I love that this is my life!” as he and his Team USA peers waited for their entrance during the opening ceremony of the 2013 Summer World University Games.

The bi-annual games, held July 6-17 in Kazan, Russia, provide a way for NCAA student-athletes to compete against fellow college students from all over the globe. This July, hundreds of student-athletes representing the United States traveled across the world to take part in the 26th summer games alongside student-athletes from more than 160 other countries.

"I believe we should be engaged internationally, whenever or wherever we can,” said Delise O’Meally, NCAA director of governance and international affairs. “If we can participate, we should be out there and give our student-athletes a chance to cross borders.”

The NCAA’s ties to the World University Games date back to the 1980s, when it became a member of the United States International University Sports Federation (USIUSF) board. This federation is comprised of representatives from the national collegiate governing bodies (NCAA, NAIA, NJCAA) and the National Association of Collegiate Athletic Directors (NACDA). The NCAA helps the federation shape policy, but it does not have a hand in organizing events and, save for paying dues, does not contribute financially.           

Four NCAA members sit on the USIUSF’s 10-member board. Two representatives hail from the membership: Nora Lynn Finch, senior associate commissioner for the Atlantic Coast Conference, and Doug Woolard, director of intercollegiate athletics at South Florida. O’Meally and Dan Calandro, associate director of Division III governance, represented the NCAA’s national office.

O’Meally, 2013 NACWAA Neil Jackson Administrator of the Year, is in the midst of her four-year term as vice president of the federation. Her role expanded when she was elevated to deputy head of delegates after the federation’s president, Gary Cunningham, fell ill right before the journey to Kazan. This meant she was in charge of Team USA – she had to manage travel logistics and solve problems on the fly.

All of that work was worth it, O’Meally said, because she was helping student-athletes take part in an event they will remember for the rest of their lives. They had the chance to represent something bigger than their schools and bigger than themselves. O’Meally knows the feeling. She joined the USIUSF board in large part because she competed in the games. She took part in the 1993 games in Buffalo (the only time the United States has been the host) as a member of Jamaica’s tennis team.

The USIUSF tries to send a team in every sport that is offered. This year, the federation sent more than 300 student-athletes and 80 staff members. Sometimes, funding issues arise and it’s difficult to piece teams together with student-athletes from different schools. In those cases, entire teams from one university are sent.       

This year featured seven university teams: men’s volleyball (Springfield), women’s volleyball (Kansas State), men’s and women’s tennis (Southern California), men’s water polo (UCLA), women’s water polo (California) and rugby 7 (Navy). Non-NCAA sports such as weightlifting, synchronized swimming and judo were also offered. As long as an individual is enrolled as a college student, and fit the age requirements, he or she is allowed to compete. Team USA finished seventh overall, claiming 40 total medals in eight of the 18 sports (11 gold, 14 silver, 15 bronze).

The student-athletes were housed in the athletes’ village that can accommodate up to 14,000 individuals. After only a three-week stay, O’Meally said she felt as though she had lived there her entire life. The living quarters were close and the beds were small but this provided constant interaction and engagement among student-athletes from around the world. Ultimately, O’Meally said, college athletes from different countries and backgrounds realized how similar they all were. And American student-athletes, whether they compete in the NCAA, NAIA or NJCAA, were welcomed with open arms.           

“These games provide us with a unique opportunity,” O’Meally explained. “Our participation is highly valued in the world. If the U.S. does not send a team, it is significant. And if we only send half of a team, it’s significant because all of the other nations to a certain extent measure the level of their collegiate competition against the United States.”

Student-athlete spotlight

  • Vashti Thomas, who recently finished her senior year as a hurdler for the Academy of Art—a Division II school – broke the competition record in the 100-meter hurdles. Thomas won with a time of 12.61, shaving 0.1 seconds of the previous record. She transferred to the Academy of Art from Division I Texas A&M because she yearned to study illustration while still competing in track and field.
  • Sabrina Santamaria, a junior at Southern California, won silver in the women’s tennis singles event. A mere 5-foot-2, Santamaria learned to play tennis on Los Angeles’ public courts and, with USC doubles partner Kaitlyn Christian, is now part of one of the most successful doubles teams in college tennis history.
  • Luke Hancock, a rising senior men’s basketball player at Louisville, was chosen as Team USA’s flag bearer. Hancock is coming off a stellar junior campaign, when he helped the Cardinals win the Division I men’s basketball national championship and was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player.