Ski-U-Mah Life is a new weekly feature from GopherSports.com that highlights some of the more than 700 Minnesota student-athletes outside of their athletic accomplishments. This week, freshman outside hitter Alice Zeimann of the Gopher volleyball team is spotlighted.
Alice Zeimann is 8,400 miles away from home, in the opposite hemisphere, in a country where “colour” and “favourite” drop their u’s. All these differences were part of the deal with the New Zealander’s longtime goal of playing collegiate volleyball in the United States.
Zeimann is rapidly becoming acclimated to the University of Minnesota community, but at the same time her new campus has provided a tangible connection to her original home of Christchurch. The Gophers’ coach, Hugh McCutcheon, is from the same city.
McCutcheon made the trek from New Zealand to America in 1990 when he joined Brigham Young’s volleyball team, and came to Minneapolis in 2012 following his time coaching USA Volleyball. He understands what it takes to thrive in a new environment, and saw in Zeimann the skill, maturity, character and team attitude needed to do it.
“You need conviction to succeed here, because you give up a lot,” McCutcheon said. “You give up your friends, your family and your culture, and all of that stuff. Then you get here and it’s different, and you’re on your own. It’s a real challenge.
“If you don’t have conviction relative to what your hopes and dreams are, and the path that you’re on relative to trying to achieve them, then very quickly the work that’s required emotionally, physically and mentally to stay and do your best here, can become overwhelming.”
It is not unusual for student-athletes to come to Minnesota from all over the globe. In spring of 2017 there were 53 Gophers hailing from beyond the 50 states. The volleyball team has recently seen native Spanish speakers from Puerto Rico, Daly Santana and Dalianliz Rosado, succeed in Minneapolis. But it is rare for a head coach and player to share the same international hometown.
“The first time I heard of him was during the 2012 London Olympics,” Zeimann said. “That was the first time that I found out he was from New Zealand. … That was cool for me because I idolized those players.”
Zeimann first met McCutcheon when he was at her school giving a talk. They later got to know each other during the recruiting process, and have mutual connections in the New Zealand volleyball world.
Their shared Christchurch background doesn’t mean favoritism for Zeimann, but it does mean there’s another person who understands about Marmite, a yeast extract spread popular in New Zealand. And if she ever gets homesick, she knows she can go to her coach.
“She’s not alone,” McCutcheon said. “All those years ago I was on a similar path to hers, so I have a great degree of empathy for her situation. We also have a cultural connection. So if she needs to speak a little Kiwi I’m here for her.”
Zeimann’s teammates have also aided her transition. She and fellow freshman Jasmyn Martin arrived on campus in January and roomed together in Roy Wilkins Hall during the spring semester.
“I remember the first day we got here,” Martin said. “I think she got in pretty late at night, so we went to bed that night. But the next day was the start to, ‘We’re best friends now.’”
Martin, a Brooklyn Park native, called Zeimann “the funniest person I’ve ever met in my life.” The two spent most of their free time together exploring campus, Minneapolis restaurants, lakes and the Mall of America. Zeimann raves about the food in Minnesota, especially the ice cream, and Martin has sampled some of the Kiwi cuisine Zeimann brought to their apartment.
Zeimann enjoys experiencing all four seasons in Minnesota, albeit at opposite times from when they occur in New Zealand. She also said “Minnesota nice” people remind her of home.
Architecture has been one of the most noticeable differences between Minneapolis and Christchurch. Zeimann was struck by the collection of tall buildings downtown when she came to the Twin Cities. Christchurch suffered a series of earthquakes, including a severe one in 2011, which destroyed many of the high-rises in the country’s third most populous city.
“We were at school and we had just put the chairs on the desks so the cleaners could come in,” Zeimann said. “They all started falling down and the bricks on the building were just flying off the building. The cracks in the earth were just crazy.”
Due to heavy damage to their city caused by the quake, flooding and soil liquefaction, Zeimann and her family drove six hours to stay with relatives. She attended school with her cousins while her own school was closed for several weeks.
Six years after the earthquake, Christchurch would be ready for Zeimann to show her teammates if any of them were to make the journey. Zeimann said she would also bring them to places like Queenstown, the lakes of Wanaka, the Saturday markets in Nelson and the North Island’s Mount Maunganui.
“New Zealand’s beautiful,” she said. “You drive 10 minutes, and you’re out in the countryside, and it’s untouched, pretty much. Every town you go to, there’s something to see.”
Thinking about home and family, especially her mom, helps Zeimann remember why she plays volleyball and why she wants to be the best she can be. Sometimes little things, like not having family claim her four allotted tickets to matches, make her miss home.
But those moments pass quickly and she knows Christchurch will be waiting when she goes back. She is living the dream she “100 percent” wanted. In Minneapolis, Zeimann has teammates and a compatriot coach she can lean on. She’s confident that coming here for college was the right decision, and Martin already feels her classmate will help next year’s freshmen feel the same way.
“I love (Minnesota),” Zeimann said. “I thought it would take longer for it to feel like home, but it didn’t. It really feels like home now, which is nice.”
Justine Buerkle is an assistant director of athletic communications at the University of Minnesota, and a contributing writer to GopherSports.com and Ski-U-Mah Magazine.
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