Name: Willem van den Akker
University: Saint Leo University
City: Tampa, Florida
1. Best college sports memory
The best memory I have is from my sophomore year. We had a very high-level team that could win the National Championship. In March, we beat the #1 in the country, West Florida, but it was not enough to secure the #1 position. A week later, we played Barry University, our biggest rivals and new #1 in the country, at our home courts. It was about 33 degrees Celsius without any clouds or wind. We were 3-2 down in total matches, and it was just my teammate and myself still on court playing singles. I won the first set quite quickly, but my opponent found his form, and suddenly I was 5-3 40-15 down on my serve. To this day, I have no idea what happened or how I did it, but I managed to hit a couple of backhand winners (shocking). Somehow, I got myself back in the match and was able to come out on top. In conclusion, my doubles partner and I managed to win after long battles, and a week later we secured the #1 position in the NCAA Division 2 rankings.
2. Biggest U.S. culture shock
My biggest U.S. culture shock was the diversity of cultures present on our university campus. I believe this is a huge positive for people who come over to the United States to study. You are able to interact with people, talk about their childhood, and discuss how things are different from your own culture.
3. Biggest difference between you as a freshman and as a senior
The difference between me as a freshman and a senior is the understanding that if you want to achieve your goals, you have to be willing to put in the hard work. Early practices, late-night homework, and focusing on the food that you eat before and after a workout is something I never paid attention to. In the United States, hard work is rewarded, and the mindset that they teach you here is, in the beginning, tough to understand, but when the general goal becomes clear to you, you will understand the importance of dedication. This helps me in every aspect of life.
4. Most-improved aspect of your sports game
The most improved aspect of my sports game is my mental game. I believe in the United States, they teach you a mindset of everything for the team instead of for personal gain. It gave me a different view on how to play a match and boosted my motivation since I knew exactly who I was fighting for: my team.
5. Thing you missed most about the Netherlands.
In the beginning, I missed everything about the Netherlands, but when you are in a team and studying at the same time, you are very busy, and you have less time to realize what you are missing. Family, friends, and the food (the Dutch snackbar) are things I missed, but for me, as weird as it is, I missed the weather as well. I study in Florida, and the constant sun gets tiring. I do not mind a cloudy, rainy day once in a while, haha.
6. Thing you missed least about the Netherlands.
I believe changing from an environment that you live in for 18 years to a completely new environment will make you miss everything. Overtime, you create a new home and you miss things less and less because it does not feel like you are somewhere new or not “at home”. The thing I missed the least from the Netherlands is biking everywhere. The United States is a car-driven society and that makes everything faster and easier.
7. Favorite dining hall food?
My favorite dining hall food is the Chinese station we have at the university. Rice, chicken, or shrimp are things I enjoy. However, throughout my college career, I appreciate the food in the Netherlands more and more because the American diet is very differently prepared than at home.
8. Favorite thing about being a student-athlete
My favorite thing about being a student-athlete is traveling with your team. The bond that you create with your teammates is similar to a family. Almost every second of the day you spend together making memories and working together towards a goal. You will build friendships for life, and that is by far the best thing about being part of a team as a student-athlete.
9. Toughest part about being a student-athlete
The toughest part by far is early practices. If you are a dedicated student-athlete, every day is full of events from the time you wake up until you go to sleep. I feel like you have to really want to be a student-athlete; otherwise, you cannot keep motivating yourself to do everything day in day out.
10. Plans for after college
Due to the Covid-19 which ended my last season early, I have one more year of eligibility left. I have decided to start a Master’s in Data Analytics and play one more year for the team at Saint Leo. The Master’s degree takes two years, so after my first year, I would like to work and study – I already have a job lined up nearby my university. Further plans have yet to be made.
11. Thing you will miss most about the United States as a country
I think I will miss the freedom to experience new things and interact with different cultures the most. The United States has taught me a lot of things about myself and other people, which is a very valuable lesson for anyone who changes cultural environments.
12. Thing will you miss most about college sports?
I still have one more year but the idea of being part of a team and working together towards a common goal is something I will really miss. Everyone in the team is in the same situation, everything new and exciting. Although at moments it can be tough, what makes it so special is that the whole team helps each other get through every obstacle.
The funniest moments were always in the van towards or from a match. Whenever someone fell asleep, we would mess with them and pull a prank. Trying to scare them by all screaming at the same time or putting stuff in their mouth (like they did to me on the video below). Very childish but very funny in the moment.
14. Tip you would you give your freshman-self?
The tip I would give is to enjoy every single second as a student-athlete. One of my best friends and the former captain of my team told me my first week: “Enjoy every moment because the next four years will fly by in a second,” and nothing could be more accurate. Everything goes immensely fast because you are always busy, but realizing the memories that you make and appreciating every moment, even the early practices, is an essential tip I would give myself.
15. Main reason you would recommend others to play college sports?
The experiences that you have during your college sports career are very critical in the development of you as a person. I would recommend it because you grow as a person; learning about different cultures and learning about yourself are things that are difficult to experience if you do not open yourself up for a change of environment or unusual situations. On top of that, the experience and the memories that you make during your career are a student-athlete are unforgettable, and you will always cherish them.
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