Adjusting to life in America is not always easy for international athletes

Junior Geovana Lopes poses for a headshot.

Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Junior Geovana Lopes poses for a headshot.

By Nithin Reddy, Staff Writer

Most college basketball players come from around the country.  Their stories may be different, but they have most of the same problems that any other students might have: how to deal with being away from my parents for the first time, what do I do about food and housing?

For international students, it’s different as they have to adapt to living in a new country, adjusting to cultural differences, and potentially learning a new language. Throw in being an athlete and it seems like an almost impossible task.

The Illinois women’s basketball team has three players outside of the country.  Junior guard J-Naya Ephraim is from the U.S. Virgin Islands, redshirt-junior forward Nancy Panagiotopoulou Andritsopoulou comes from Greece, and junior center Geovana Lopes resides in Brazil.  All of them have had different paths that brought them to the University of Illinois.

Ephraim is being international might be a surprise, but she grew up in St. Croix, a small island off of the Caribbean.  Ephraim grew up with her mom and brothers before moving to North Carolina to live with her dad.  Her parents could tell at a young age that Ephraim loved sports, and they felt the move could help her succeed.

Ephraim’s first love was softball rather than basketball, but when she moved to America, Ephraim started to develop her skill on the hardwood.

“Coming to America, I played in almost every state for travel basketball, so it was all new to me,” said Ephraim. “I was able to grow my game and meet new trainers, my game grew a lot coming to America”

In high school, Ephraim was an All-State player, and she competed on the U16 and U17 Virgin Islands National Teams.  Her play garnered attention from James Madison and Temple before Ephraim eventually committed to Illinois.

Andritsopoulou’s story is quite different.  Growing up in Greece, Andritsopoulou knew when she was in middle school that she loved basketball.  Both of her parents played, and Andritsopoulou was good heading into high school.  She took a basketball scholarship to an international school in Athens so that she could prepare to attend college internationally. Despite the scholarship, Andritsopoulou didn’t play a lot as her high school would only play two tournaments a year.

It was club basketball where Andritsopoulou developed into the player she is today. Playing against older women, Andritsopoulou learned how to compete alongside experience and grow as a player. Her recruiting process was a bit different than most.

Going into her senior year, Andritsopoulou had no idea where she would or if she would attend college. Andritsopoulou’s high school athletic director helped put her in contact with schools, and finally, in May of her senior year, Andritsopoulou visited schools. By August she was on campus at Illinois.

It wasn’t an easy transition for Andritsopoulou coming from Greece as it took her a while to get used to living in the U.S.

“They were a different kind of people I had to get used to.  I would say my first year was really hard,” said Andritsopoulou. “I had to get used to interacting with these people, how they think.  It’s a different mindset that Americans and Greeks have.”

Even basketball became a struggle for Andritsopoulou as she had to get used to lifting weights more frequently as well as the way the game is played. In Greece, Andritsopoulou had to play a much more physically demanding brand of basketball because of how lenient the refs were. In America she found herself being overaggressive and unnecessarily fouling players. In Andritsopoulou’s first team scrimmage, she says that she committed a foul on every possession.

Andritsopoulou’s first few years were a struggle at Illinois as she was forced to medically redshirt her freshman year. She missed the following season due to injuries. That time away from the team was tough for her.

“It was very hard to get through (the injuries). I was living here and not playing basketball. I couldn’t do the thing I wanted and there’s not a lot to do around here besides school,” said Andritsopoulou. “There was a period of time where I felt pretty disconnected from the team because I was not playing.  It was pretty hard.”

Andritsopoulou believes she has grown immensely on and off the court during her time in Champaign. Despite joining the team in 2017, Andritsopoulou debuted for the Illini last January coming a long way from a scared basketball player living 5,000 miles from her home.

Lopes’s journey to Champaign is far from normal. Lopes grew up in Bataguassu, a small town in Brazil, and similarly to Andritsopoulou, Lopes realized that the best way to further her basketball career would be to come to America. Early on in her basketball career, she underwent major knee surgery to repair her right ACL and meniscus, but in 2018, after finishing high school, Lopes decided to attend Odessa College, a JUCO school in Texas. It was a big adjustment for Lopes.

Growing up, Lopes didn’t speak any English.  At home and school, she would only speak Portuguese, so coming to America she had to learn the language. She found comfort in her teammates quickly making friends with Dutch player Okako Adika.

“(Okako Adika) taught me everything, like how to ask for water, how to talk to my professors, the basketball drills,” said Lopes. “My assistant coach was Brazilian, so she helped me out, but this friend, Okako, she’s a big part of my life.”

Adika now plays at Butler, but the two are still close and constantly talk.  In her first year at Odessa, Lopes was coming off the bench. The team was good making the Elite 8 in the NJCAA Tournament, but Lopes didn’t have a big impact on the team, averaging less than four points per game.

Lopes’s sophomore year was when she started to shine. She had to fight every day against a fellow Brazilian center, Maria Guimaraes, now at Fresno State, for playing time. Junior college isn’t like any other level of collegiate basketball. Players go to JUCO to move up, and since they only have two years with the team every minute is like water in the desert — scarce and vital.

Lopes ended up winning the starting gig and would help lead Odessa to a conference title and a berth in the NJCAA Tournament.  Despite the battles, Guimaraes and Lopes are still good friends. Unfortunately for Lopes, her season was cut short like many athletes due to COVID-19. After the season Lopes went home to Brazil, where she eventually would commit to Illinois and said playing in the Big Ten was hard to pass up. However, while at home, Lopes found that her English started to slip.

“I got back to Brazil in April and I stayed for about five months. My English skills were getting worse. When I committed to Illinois I was just, not afraid to talk, but [me and my teammates] didn’t have that bond,” Lopes said.

Lopes also had to figure out how to switch schools in the middle of the pandemic as well as come back to America. Lopes started by going to Cancun for 15 days so she could isolate and self-quarantine, and then she came up to Champaign to join the team.

At first, Lopes found it tough to connect with her new teammates because she never had a relationship with any of them, but she found it easier as the days went by. The zoom meetings as well as communicating with her teammates via social media made it easier, and always being around the group only added to it.

Lopes’s English is still far from perfect, but she’s been working to improve it. Lopes likes to read the Harry Potter series out of order and finds watching American TV has helped bridge the language gap. She just recently finished Stranger Things and is now obsessed with the Vampire Diaries.

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