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Track & Field: The runner from down under


Staff writer

Junior Rosie Donegan has been home twice since moving to Durham in 2012. She’s missed family Christmases, multiple birthdays and two full summers at home.

Those are the kind of sacrifices that many international recruits face when they sign letters of intent to their prospective colleges. Whether the plane ride is too long, the traveling costs are too high or there is a necessity to stay on campus to train, international student-athletes face hurdles that go unbeknownst to local recruits. But for Donegan, the chance to be an athlete at UNH has been worth the hardships that come with being an international student. She pointed out one experience that she still treasures.

“This past fall when we won the conference championship for the second year in a row, it was just so great because we ran as a team and the race went perfectly to plan,” she said. “It was a great day. I was just really happy.”

Prior to UNH, Donegan called Melbourne, Australia home.  She represented her state in the cross-country championships from 8th through 12th grade. Her senior year she switched from training with her small high school team to a club at the University of Melbourne and took third place at the national cross-country championship. She also took third place in the 5000-meter and fourth in the 1500-meter race that year. She represented Australia in the World Mountain-Running Championship in Albania and placed sixth overall in the women’s junior division.

By the end of her senior year she had 12 different schools in the United States recruiting her and offering scholarships.

“I had schools contacting me from Tennessee and Eastern Kentucky and places like that,” she said. “I was just like ‘I don’t know where that is or what they do there.’”

Because her brother was going to be moving to New York City, Donegan knew she wanted to be in New England. She personally reached out to head coach Robert Hoppler on a hunch that UNH would be a good fit.

“That’s actually pretty common,” Hoppler said. “We get a lot of contact from international kids.”

Despite that, the women’s track program has only had two international athletes in the past eight years — including Donegan. Hoppler said it’s much harder to verify the athletic credentials of international prospects. But in the case of Donegan, Hoppler had a contact from New Zealand whose daughter raced against her — and was beaten by her. Hoppler quickly realized that Donegan was a legitimate and talented athlete with the work ethic and motivation necessary to take on the tricky process that is becoming an international student-athlete. 

“She was totally task-oriented,” Hoppler said. “She did all the work. We realized that if we were going to change up our dynamics and get an international athlete, she was the type of kid we wanted.”

After several conversations with Hoppler and a visit with the team, Donegan felt confident about applying to UNH.

Donegan graduated high school in December 2011, due to the different seasons. The Australian school year follows the calendar year, so the end of the year also marks the end of the school year for students. She had to wait almost six months before starting her freshman year at UNH. In the meantime, she didn’t quite know how to feel.

“I was really looking forward to being a part of a team,” she said. “I never really had the strong team experience in high school. But it was a mixture of emotions thinking about leaving my family and all my friends. I had a big going away lunch with everyone and I tried to make a speech and I just cried — which was really embarrassing.”

Fortunately for Donegan, she’s had a bit of experience traveling and living away from home. Starting at age nine, she traveled with her family to Vietnam, China, Malaysia and Laos. At age 15 they traveled all over Europe: from Spain to France, Turkey and Portugal. Between her junior and senior year of high school she lived with a host family in France for two months.

“That was my first experience really living away from home and I think that prepared me because I had to do everything by myself for the most part,” she said. “I had a host family, but there was a language barrier. Mentally that definitely prepared me for moving over here because I had that experience being away from my family.”

So despite having an idea of what it would take to live far away from home, Donegan still faced a number of other adjustments. Coming from a city of four million, she had no experience running on backcountry New Hampshire trails.

“I’m actually still not very good at it compared to some of the other girls on the team,” she said. “They grew up doing it and I’m just not as agile or something. But I love the trails here — one of the reasons I chose UNH was because I knew there would be a lot of great places to run.”

She’s not so keen on the extensive New England winters, however.

“The seasons at home are just three months long,” she said. “None of these six-month winters. I did cross-country ski when I was growing up, but I never lived in snow that I had to deal with day-to-day. I had to buy all these new clothes once I was here because I was just so not prepared.”

Due to those long winters, she also had to adjust to shorter competition seasons. Indoor track was a completely foreign concept to her. Because of the lack of snow and mild winters, Donegan was used to competing outdoors year-round.

“I had never done indoor track until I came here,” she said. “At first I was like ‘what is this? Why is this track so small?’ But then I got used to it, so now it’s okay. I think it’s fun.”

But all of those adjustments — weather, climate, season length — are nothing compared to the one big lesson Donegan learned her freshman year.

“Coming in I put a lot of pressure on myself,” she said. “I was worried that it was going to be hyped up as ‘Oh, here’s this girl from Australia.’ There are not very many international athletes so I was scared it was going to be this big deal. “

Driven by her fear of not living up to expectations, Donegan pushed her training to new levels.

“I was like ‘I have to run a lot and be really fast and do really well,’” she said. “I was trying to keep up with the upperclassmen on the team who were a lot more experienced than me. That’s not going to work if you’re not used to running 50 miles a week.”

Halfway through her first cross-country season at UNH, Donegan strained a tendon in the arch of her foot. She did two pool workouts every day for two weeks so she could compete at the conference championship. Despite the injury, she still earned all-conference and placed 10th overall. But she learned a big lesson — she had to put aside her anxiety over proving her worth and listen to her body.

“It was my first big injury and a complete reality check,” she said. “Like, ‘Yes, I can run well, but I also need to learn about myself and my body and be realistic about what I can do and what my limitations are.’”

Donegan credits her team for getting her through that injury and the anxiety of living halfway around the world.

“I think the biggest surprise after coming here was making such good friends with my teammates so instantly,” she said. “I felt so comfortable and so at home and that really made everything else so much easier.”

That’s not to say the comfort didn’t require overcoming a few Australian quips.

“At first, my accent was very prominent so people could barely understand what I was saying,” she said. “And everyone was just bombarding me with these silly questions like ‘Do you have Christmas in Australia?’ or ‘Do you see kangaroos everywhere?’ I was just like ‘No.’”

Now that she’s overcome the kangaroo witticisms, Donegan seems to be fitting right in. The distance runner has 18 top-10 performances under her belt at UNH, with two runner-up performances at the America East Championships this past month. The political science major and French minor also earned the America East Elite 18 Award, which honors the highest achievement in academics and athletics by a student-athlete in each America East sponsored sport.

Looking ahead to her future, Donegan has no plans to move back home to Australia anytime soon. This past summer she lived and worked in Boston and this coming summer she will be interning and living in Washington, D.C. She plans to complete her master’s degree at UNH in five years and get a job working in international organizations and advocacy after college. She would like to get involved in Amnesty International or a human rights group and named working for the United Nations her dream job.

For right now, the junior is just looking forward to spending more time with the team she has come to call her family. She credits the university and UNH athletics with making her international living experience easy and fun.

“Everyone at the fieldhouse has been so supportive,” she said. “There wasn’t ever one adjustment that was like a slap in the face. If anything, moving here was a lot easier than I ever thought it was going to be.”

But she does have one piece of advice for international recruits.

“Have realistic expectations about the transition,” she said. “Things are always going to pop up that you don’t expect. It’s up to you to figure things out and adjust to living somewhere you’re not used to at all. In the end, you just have to be mentally prepared to deal with things and understand that you can’t just go home.”

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