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April 01, 2014 | 08:15 PMShe led the Badger girls varsity basketball team in scoring all winter long with 12.6 points per game and finished the season a first-team all-conference guard. She was the second fastest runner on the JV cross country team last fall. Right now, she’s competing on the track and field team.
She’s a junior, but you won’t find Maria Mieres-Rey listed in any athletic programs prior to the fall, 2013 season. In fact, if you asked head basketball coach David Jooss in October who his best player would be this winter, he probably wouldn’t have known her name.
But he does now.
It was supposed to be a rebuilding year for a Badger team that graduated some top talent the season before, instead Mieres-Rey gave them an unexpected boost and played a big role in their 17-7 season. The year before, Badger went 16-8.
Meires-Rey wasted no time assimilating into the American Sports culture and the experience, for her, has been surreal.
Coming to Wisconsin
At this time in 2013, Mieres-Rey wasn’t enrolled at Badger High School, or any high school in the United States. She was at home in Gijón, Spain, awaiting word from the Northwest Student Exchange program to tell her where she would spend the 2013-14 school year in the United States.
She was hoping for California — her father was an exchange student in northern California in the 1980s — or Washington, she admitted. “Places people know,” she said.
But one day last spring, her mom came to pick her up from school and told her that she had some bad news: she had been placed in Wisconsin.
Mieres-Rey’s first reaction was “What?” she said. She hadn’t heard of Wisconsin or its legendary winters. She had her heart set on someplace warm, she said, like the places she had seen in movies. She was in for a rude awakening.
As she talked, Mieres-Rey’s host mother, Michelle Oberholtzer, laughed across a table at Carribou Coffee in downtown Lake Geneva.
“The funniest part about it was when she first got here, of course it was still warm, and we told her, ‘You know, we have to get you prepared,’ because she didn’t bring any warm clothes,” Oberholtzer said.
Oberholtzer’s daughter, Gabbie, cut in: “So she’s shopping and she’s picking out tank tops and T-shirts…”
“And I said, ‘No, no, you don’t understand, it’s going to be really cold,’” Oberholtzer said.
Mieres-Rey had seen snow before, but only while skiing in Spain, she said, where it was still warm enough to wear T-shirts and leggings on the hill.
She was amazed when, during one of this winter’s many sub-zero days, she watched boiling water freeze midair with her host family — they conducted a polar vortex experiment together.
“I was like, I didn’t even know that was possible,” Mieres-Rey said.
A different sport culture
Wisconsin may not have been what she expected from her trip abroad, but she wasted no time diving in to the Badger High School culture the best way she knew how — through Sports.
“Maria’s done a great job of assimilating,” Oberholtzer said. “Right off the bat, she started out and joined the cross country team at Badger and she ran this fall. Gabbie’s been involved in cross country for the last number of years and she offered for her to come and Maria joined right away, so within a few weeks of her getting here, she was already active at Badger.”
“Literally the day after,” Gabbie added. “Like, she got here and we went for a run.”
According to the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association’s website (WIAA), every year, the association grants more than 900 foreign exchange students permission to compete in varsity Sports for one year. This year, Mieres-Rey was one of them.
And what she experienced was much different than what she was used to in Spain.
Mieres-Rey said that she had been playing basketball since she was 8 years-old, but never as a part of a school program — those don’t exist in Spain. Instead, students participate in city or town clubs that are not affiliated with schools. Rivalries don’t exist like they do here. Friends and classmates don’t come out in droves on Friday nights to cheer on their team. School bands don’t blare fight-songs in gyms decorated by the history of their success — championship banners, team mascots and trophy cases.
And the basketball season in Spain is much longer.
“Yeah, it’s very different,” Mieres-Rey said. “The basketball season here is shorter, so you have to do your stuff, like the conditioning and the plays … in three months. It’s much more intensive. In Spain it’s, like, over a year from September to May. So we have a plan: first we condition and then we (learn) plays. So we have other time to prepare. Here, it’s, like, so intense because you have to hurry up, you only have three months.”
But the American sport culture is what surprised her most — she got her first taste during the football season.
“The most shocking thing that I saw was the football games,” Mieres-Rey said. “It’s like the films, like the American films that you see on TV. You see it and you think, ‘Oh it’s not like that,’ but it is like that. Like, the cheerleaders were (out) there and I was like, ‘Oh my God, there are cheerleaders!’ It was like a show, like I was in a movie.”
The crowds, the fanfare and the attention was intimidating for someone so used to competing without it.
“She had seen the band and all the hoopla that goes with football, and then she was nervous when it came time for basketball,” Oberholtzer said. “She said it wasn’t about playing the game, once she gets into the game it’s fine. She was nervous because she knew there was going to be a crowd and all those people and she wasn’t used to that part.”
But by the end of the season, the loud games, the big crowds and especially the presence of the school band were her favorites.
“Here if you go to school and people watched you play yesterday, they’re just like, ‘Oh you played good, I saw you play, I was cheering for you,’“ Mieres-Rey said. “In my school (in Spain) they know I play basketball, but no one is watching me because it’s a club. So they don’t know. You don’t have all the support you have here. I like it better, I like the support and the cheerleaders and the dance team. It’s nice.”
The decision to travel abroad
In the 1980s, Meires-Rey’s father studied abroad in California, and throughout her childhood he told her stories about his California adventure.
“I was always like, ‘Oh, I want to do this,’“ Mieres-Rey said.
She was used to traveling alone, she said, and exploring new cultures on her own.
When she was 13, she went to France with friends through her school and then to Istanbul through the same program.
“I always traveled alone, like with friends or when I was little I always went to basketball camps,” she said. “I was never scared to travel alone.”
One day last year, while with her father, she casually dropped the idea.
“I asked him, ‘So, when am I going to the United States to study?’“ she said. “And he was like, ‘Are you serious, you want to go? Really?’ So we started the process to come here.”
They signed her up with the Northwest Student Exchange program, which places students in different states all across the country, Oberholtzer said. Right now, about seven kids are involved in the program at Badger and in the surrounding area, she said. And about every month or so, the exchange students get together for a group activity.
There were a few things it took some time to get used to, Mieres-Rey said. The eating schedule was a tough adjustment. In Spain dinner is eaten much later in the evening, around 9 or 10 p.m., she said, and lunch is not at noon, it’s closer to 3 p.m.
Also, Mieres-Rey was used to walking pretty much anywhere she needed to go.
“You need like a ride everywhere, so that was kind of hard to like assimilate,” she said.
But nothing compared to the weather, she said.
“But we’re trying to make up for it,” Oberholtzer laughed. “We’re taking her to Florida for spring break.”
When she leaves in June, Mieres-Rey said without hesitation, that she will miss her new friends more than anything else.
“The people are just really open,” she said of her experience in Wisconsin. “They are always helping me.”
Her experience was different than she expected.
“But I’m happy,” she said and then she smiled.