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AIFS Alum Plays Lacrosse for the Russian National Team

by AIFS Study Abroad
AIFS Alum Plays Lacrosse for the Russian National Team | AIFS Study Abroad

My name is Jon, and I am the Assistant Resident Director of the AIFS St. Petersburg program. I actually first came to Russia in 2011 through AIFS, so I suppose you could say that I’ve come full circle. It is always interesting so see things from the other side of the desk, and every semester I get excited for new groups of students to experience the same excitement and emotions that I felt when I first came to St. Petersburg. Of course, this isn’t about all of my experiences abroad, but one particular facet of my life that was perhaps the most unexpected.

Representing Russia at the 2016 European Lacrosse Championships was one of the most unexpected turn of events in my life since I came to Russia way back in Fall of 2011.

You know, when everyone studies abroad they always make verbal commitments to come back and visit. Unfortunately, most never get the chance to do so. But I was one of the lucky few who returned almost a year and a half later for graduate studies in St. Petersburg.

It was then, a few weeks into my second Russian adventure, on a typical rainy and gloomy fall day in September of 2013, that I picked up a lacrosse stick for the first time. I had played soccer my entire life, so picking up lacrosse was not something that came easily to me (though, my limited experience with hockey during my childhood and university years certainly helped out).

All in all, when I was first offered the opportunity to play I was surprised. Lacrosse in Russia? I had never even seen the sport in real life in America, nor was I particularly familiar with the rules. Of course I knew what it was, but what I mean is that I had never been properly acquainted with the sport. That first practice was a difficult one, but I knew soon after that I had found a new passion. The rest, as they say, is history!

Years later, I have played lacrosse in over seven different countries.

I have even managed to win a tournament and have represented Russia playing against more than ten national lacrosse teams on the premier European stage. Though lacrosse has a long way to go as far as popularity is concerned, in both Europe and the United States, it is indeed the fastest growing sport in the world. Yet the popularity of the sport made little difference to my teammates and I as we stood on the sideline for our first match-up against a strong Netherlands side.

The minute they played the Russian national anthem, you couldn’t help but feel the goosebumps and energy coursing through your body. This was real; this was the top European level.

It didn’t matter that I wasn’t Russian; my connections to the country, having lived here for more than three years now, run deep.

I was proud to represent Russia’s best with little thought to the ongoing political struggles between Russia and the West. It was just us, the other team, and the game.

As the team’s first choice FOGO (Face Off, Get Off), I had a lot of pressure going into these games with the limited experience that I had against top level FOGOs. For those of you who don’t know, the faceoff is how a match restarts at every quarter and goal scored. On average, you can expect to take at least twenty face-offs in a game. A dominant FOGO can feed an aggressive offense with constant possession wins off of the faceoff.

Playing at the top European level was amazing. Words cannot describe the feeling of what it was like to participate in an international tournament like this. We, at least for the two weeks during which the tournament was held, felt like professional athletes. It was extremely well organized and professionally executed.

Between tactical meetings before games and marching (or busing) to our fields under the white, blue and red banner, the atmosphere was one of a professional, high-level competition. We even had a bit of a crowd for most of the games, albeit our supporters were very few in number. In the end, these are things that don’t matter. The fact that there were people coming out to support the sport was phenomenal.

Though Team Russia didn’t place as well as we had hoped (16 of 24), we were still able to avoid post-group play in the “loser’s bracket,” having earned a spot in the middle bracket. This placing also helped bump us up in world rankings. These games were so memorable for me, though some stand out in particular such as our 1-point loss to Poland with 1 minute remaining in regulation, after a 7-point come back in the 4th quarter and a solid-showing against France who fell to an overwhelming Russian offence fed by dominant face-off play.

There were forgettable games as well, including a 21-1 Finnish routing in which I was taken out of the game in the first quarter with an injury to my wrist. But in the end, it’s less about the wins and losses and more about the experience and growth of the players and the game. 16th is great for Russia’s first European showing, and the experience gained by all of our players will be invaluable in the years to come as we look to bring Russian lacrosse, and the sport itself, to new and greater heights.

Lacrosse has taken me all over Europe, and has given me experiences and memories that I will never forget. It has even made me a better person.

Inheriting the responsibility of playing on Team Russia and captainship of the St. Petersburg club team has taught me invaluable lessons about leadership and perseverance. Yet, all of this could not have been possible if I had not taken that leap of faith to fly all the way to Russia for a semester abroad (regretfully, not a full year) with AIFS. That was when I fell in love with the city of St. Petersburg and Russia, and it was that love, that longing to explore and understand, which ultimately led me back.

If you had told me five or six years ago about the experiences that I have shared with you—that I would speak Russian and live in St. Petersburg—I simply wouldn’t have believed it. Without a single doubt in my mind, choosing to study abroad impacted my life in an overwhelmingly positive way. It was certainly a significant decision to leave the world I knew behind, but those who do leave their comfort zone, even just for a summer or a semester, have the opportunity to discover more than they could have ever hoped and impact their lives in ways that they would have never expected.

So if you’re on the fence about study abroad, take that final step and just do it! If you’ve already begun the process of being accepted into a program, congratulations! You’re without a doubt on your way to an adventure of a lifetime!

To learn more about studying abroad in Russia like Jon did, check out our semester, academic year, summer, and January term programs in St. Petersburg.

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