Swimming and diving international athletes embrace challenges of competing in America


Image courtesy of Pitt Athletics

Senior diver Amy Read, originally from Leeds, England, prepares to dive. Read broke Pitt’s record in women’s platform diving last year.

By Richie Smiechowski, Staff Writer

While swimming and diving programs across the nation continue to recruit on the domestic stage, Pitt head coach John Hargis searches beyond the confines of the United States to land his record-breaking athletes.

Hargis and the rest of his coaching staff haven’t hesitated to pursue international talent. Between the men’s and women’s teams, the rosters combine to have 13 international athletes from nine different countries — a significantly higher number than some other top programs across the country.

Two years removed from his 2016 high school graduation, Cooper van der Laan found himself at a crossroads.

He’d spent the last 18 months in his hometown of Gold Coast, Australia, out of the pool and rehabbing an injury that occurred while walking his dog. After continuing to exercise on it for the next few months, a precautionary MRI revealed several fractures that forced him to undergo complete ankle reconstruction. 

“It’s in a sense kind of funny — at the time I thought nothing of it, that it was just a sprain,” van der Laan, now a senior swimmer at Pitt, said. “Then for it to turn to ankle reconstruction and to go through that whole process of recovery, not knowing if I was one, going to be able to swim again, and two, to compete at a high level, that part was pretty daunting.”

The recovery did give van der Laan the chance to ponder his future. 

As opposed to the United States, where universities allow collegiate athletes to further their academic career while also working toward their degrees, the majority of high-level athletes in Australia must choose between one or the other.

Luckily for van der Laan, he managed to make a full recovery and, once again, found some of his old form in the pool. Competitive swimming was once again an option for him.

While exploring his options, he spoke with a friend from Australia who made the jump to NCAA swimming and had nothing but good things to say about his experience. Shortly after that conversation, van der Laan took it upon himself to see what options he had across the Pacific. Almost 10,000 miles away, it was Pitt that stood out to him as the best combination of athletics and academics.

“I got a call from one of the coaches here at Pitt and it straightaway jumped out,” he said. “I saw myself developing as both a student and a swimmer and as a person as well, so I took that opportunity. I’d like to think that I ran with it so far.”

It only takes a quick glance at the Pitt swim and dive record books to see that van der Laan has made the most of his opportunity in Pittsburgh, particularly in the 100 Breast event. In three years with the Panthers, he’s broken the school record in the event each of those three years, most recently at the Ohio State Invitational on Nov. 18 with a 51.42.

He was an All-American, ACC bronze medalist and NCAA Championship finalist last season and looks to be on track for an even better senior season. Hargis, a former Olympic gold medalist, said van der Laan has the potential and mindset to swim at any level.

“With Cooper, obviously he’s an extremely talented athlete, probably one of the more talented athletes I’ve ever worked with,” Hargis said. “He kind of fits the mold in terms of when we do look international. We really want to find the kid that has an Olympic mindset, and I would say that Cooper has that mindset.”

Hargis also acknowledged that swimming at the national level for a country as competitive as Australia is an uphill task, but a goal that he thinks van der Laan could achieve.

Senior diver Amy Read is another standout international recruit who’s put together a successful career in her four years with the Panthers. Hailing from Leeds, England, Read qualified for the NCAA championships in each of her first three seasons, and broke the school record last year in women’s platform diving with a 289.65 against West Virginia.

Like van der Laan, Read didn’t really view coming to school in the United States as a realistic possibility. Diving head coach Katie Kasprzak, who went to school in Leeds, gave some insight on how separated school and sports are in England.

“There’s no scholarships in collegiate sports — there are teams, but they’re basically like intramural teams,” Kasprzak said. “A lot of divers will either put on hold or choose not to go to college because they’re pursuing their international diving career.”

For Read, choosing one over the other wasn’t an option. As a communications major, she is looking to go to grad school and find a job in the United States. She said that Kasprzak’s experience diving in England then coming over to the United States was a big factor in her choosing Pitt to further both her academic and athletic career.

“Oh, she’s definitely been very instrumental in my diving career,” Read said. “I think there was just something about the way she reached out to me and obviously there was a comfortability there, she knew what it was like to move to America.”

Despite their success in the pool, there are a number of difficulties that come with being an international athlete, especially over the past two years with the COVID-19 pandemic. According to van der Laan, he hasn’t returned to Australia in almost 16 months, making the challenge of being thousands of miles from home even tougher.

“First and foremost, your immediate family’s on the other side of the world, and my freshman year, that was probably one of the biggest things that I had to come to terms with,” he said. “I’m lucky enough to get in contact with my family back home a couple times a week, so that definitely helps but you know, it’s hard not being able to go home for Christmas and all these holidays.”

Read said she was fortunate to make it home for Christmas and is lucky that she isn’t as far from Pittsburgh as some of the other international athletes. She said having other athletes around her who are all dealing with the stresses of getting back home to other countries has helped alleviate some of the stress that comes with competing abroad.

“You’re not alone in the situation you’re in,” Read said. “Like, sometimes if I’m struggling, I’ll always know who the best people are to go and talk to because they’ll be struggling too. I do know that there are a bunch of student athletes at Pitt that weren’t able to go home this Christmas because of how bad it was in Europe.”

Dealing with the challenges of competing for championships, battling homesickness and managing extended periods of time away from their home countries due to the pandemic has formed a bond not just between the international athletes, but their domestic counterparts as well. Kasprzak said she’s really proud of how the athletes have overcome the obstacles and made the most of stressful circumstances.

“They really put their heads down, leaned on each other, and did everything that they could do in their control to make the best of the situation — and that’s something the whole team did, not just the internationals,” Kasprzak said. “Everyone leans on each other, and there’s a really great support network here.”