Zahare adjusting to Division I sports, America, while studying at Rutgers
Dozens of international student athletes come to Rutgers for the unique experience to compete in a Division I level sport among some of the best athletes in the world, and work toward an undergraduate degree at a university in the United States.
Within this small niche of athletes looking at the chance to do well in their academics and sport is Scarlet Knights tennis team freshman Kristiana Zahare.
Coming from Latvia’s capital city, Riga, Zahare made note of America’s completely different culture from her small, cozy hometown.
“In the beginning, it was a cultural shock because everything was so different. A different country, different continent, all alone by yourself at a young age,” Zahare said. “And America is very big. Everything is so big compared to where I live. It's very small. It's tiny compared to America.”
Transitioning into American culture hasn’t been easy, but Zahare has already been asserting herself as a key player for Rutgers in the next upcoming months and years.
The Brown Invitational, the Knights’ first competition of the season, saw Zahare sweep a perfect 3-0 record in singles play. The only other player to match that score was sophomore Maya Jacobs at the same invite last year.
Zahare’s aggressive on-court performance allowed her to win in straight sets against opponents from UMass and Brown, in addition to battling out Stony Brook’s Ester Chikvashvili for the win, 6-7(8), 6-2, 6-3.
But, Zahare’s doubles play didn’t equal her stellar performance in singles play. After failing to win on the first day of doubles play, Zahare switched from playing with Jacobs to junior Jaci Cochrane for the last two days of the invite and wound up recording a 1-1 mark.
Even though Zahare’s doubles play came up short at the first invite, her early success in singles play may stem from her experience in international competitions around Europe.
The Adazi Open, Jurmala Open and Ventspils Open served as Zahare’s last three tournaments before coming to New Jersey. All of these competitions were hosted in Latvia, but featured many players from different countries including Poland, Russia, Estonia, Ukraine and Lithuania.
“It gave me a lot of experience, like the basic skills of knowing how (the match) happens and fighting the battles, and also traveling,” Zahare said on her experience competing internationally. “It's easier to come to a college and be used to travel and on the road all the time.”
America’s size isn’t the only big culture change that Zahare has had to adjust to.
The training at Rutgers has created a better environment for Zahare to push herself and see improvements in her match play.
“It's very different,” Zahare said about training with the Knights. “Americans are very hard workers and their exercises are very different … It's routine. Everything is strict and when you have the whole team, the whole team is going forward to improvement. My teammates are pushing themselves in order to be on the same level as others.”
Training and competing on the same level as Rutgers’ Big Ten counterparts has been a common theme ingrained in each player. With an entirely new team, Zahare understands the importance of consistency and positivity in furthering the team's performance heading into the conference season.
Alongside being an international student athlete, Zahare has yet to learn some American slang, but is appreciative of the staff and her teammates for helping her become accustomed to some new words and phrases.
“I don't understand some slang words, which there's no possibility that I should've known it from English school,” Zahare said on dealing with the language barrier. “School doesn't teach American slang and I may take some things literally, but the team and all the people around are supportive and patient to explain many times.”
Zahare doesn’t seem to have any specific goals lined up, but she knows that her developing skills and hard work will eventually improve her success moving forward.
For now, Zahare has been taking it one day at a time and is continuing to learn the ropes of her new life as a Knight.
“I think I'm doing well by getting the hang of everything,” Zahare said. “Starting to adjust and getting right into the work. It all comes very slowly, but I think I'm doing a good job, coming from a different continent and adjusting to a different culture, the training process and doing my best.”
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