When senior men’s soccer midfielder Laurits Lillemose suffered an injury during his final year of high school in Denmark, he was at a crossroads about continuing to play the sport after graduation.
“I was going into my last year, before (I) either make it pro or semi-pro or just stop completely,” Lillemose said. “I was kind of in doubt whether I should just go to a university back home, if I should keep playing or what not.”
After being approached by an American recruiting agent, Lillemose ultimately decided to come to the United States to further both his athletic and academic careers.
For him and other Gamecock student-athletes from around the globe, that choice proved to be an impactful one, leading to four years of community-building and unique experiences in a new country.
One of Lillemose’s teammates, senior defender Henry Weigand, said his stateside journey was a lot to handle when he first arrived from Germany.
“It’s just overwhelming coming over here," Weigand said. "The time difference, the flight, getting to an airport, not really knowing what the next couple of hours look like or the next four, five months of your life."
After spending three years at Quinnipiac University, a small private school in Connecticut, Weigand said he quickly took notice of Columbia's size and the pride it had for USC and its athletics teams.
Graduate student tennis player Raphael Lambling said his first impression of Columbia was the hospitality that greeted him when he came to the U.S. as a freshman in 2018.
“Everyone was so nice with me,” Lambling said. “My teammates, they were here for me. My coaches (and) the academic staff (were) as well.”
According to Lambling, the adrenaline rush that comes with being in a new place soon turned to worry, as his primary concern became navigating around such a large city.
“I was fine with the distance with my family, but the main thing that I was scared about (was) getting lost out there,” Lambling said. “Obviously, I had no idea what to do. It was very tough for me the first few weeks.”
Outside Columbia, the COVID-19 pandemic brought its own wave of challenges for international student-athletes, especially uncertainty about when they could return to the U.S.
“What was really concerning was the politics at that time," Weigand said. "I think there was a point of time where international students weren’t allowed to go back into the country by the Trump administration, so we had to follow that daily because you had to try to plan ahead, but no one knew what was going on."
When international athletes faced situations such as these, fifth-year distance swimmer Rafael Davila said they relied on their teammates to help with homesickness.
“The hardest part is the holidays, like Christmas or Thanksgiving break, where everything stops and people go with their family,” Davila said. “But I had the opportunity, and I was lucky enough that people from the swim team here — many people offered to take you home with them and their families."
Lillemose said that surrounding himself with fellow international teammates was one of the biggest takeaways from his time at South Carolina.
“I think it’s very cool that, on a team, and pretty much a school, you have so many different nationalities and so many different cultures, so just to experience all of that in different viewpoints was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Lillemose said. “Having your home away from home with a lot of people that also has that home away from home — I think that creates a unique feeling.”
As he prepares for the next stage of his life, Lillemose said that he looks back fondly on his college experience because of the "second family" he was able to create with his teammates, despite facing some adversity when he first came here.
“It was definitely a steep learning curve as to figure out how to do everything in a different country,” Lillemose said. “It was very good though. I think it’s the best decision I’ve made so far in my life."
After spending the last four years of his life in the U.S., Weigand also finds himself at a fork in the road, waiting to see where life takes him.
“I got two great degrees from an international university in a different language, learned the language and made good friends," Weigand said. "I’m 22. I can now decide where I want to go, and I think I have the best circumstances or background to either stay here or go back home.”