It is rare that international diplomacy is mentioned in the same sentence as Broward high school sports. Usually, those topics are separated by several sections in a newspaper. As part of President Barack Obama’s Youth Exchange, the worlds of diplomacy and sports came together during the summer in Russia.
A U.S. State Department program, the Youth Exchange brings together young athletes through sports. In July, 20 swimmers from around the country — including seven girls and two boys from Broward’s Pine Crest School — traveled to Russia to take part in the program. The athletes trained with the Russian national junior team at the Russian National Training center in Moscow.
During the two-week stay, the visiting athletes trained alongside their Russian counterparts in a series of grueling twice-daily practices. But the exchange program is more than just athletic training. Each night, the athletes had activities intended to bring both sides together. Battling through a language barrier was difficult at first, but early in their stay it was clear bonds were being made.
“It took a couple of days for us to come together. At the beginning we were still in our separate groups,” Pine Crest senior Brittany Hammond said. “It took three or four days for the Russians and the Americans to sit next to each in the dinning room and on the bus.”
To make the process smoother, the American delegation was given a cheat sheet with Russian words and phrases. Early in their stay, the athletes were encouraged to practice speaking Russian with each other to help establish a connection.
“We all thought the Russians were super funny. They would start quoting stuff from American songs that they didn’t know the meaning,” Hammond said. “It was amazing how similar we all were. The stereotypes are not really true.”
Aside from training, the Americans and the Russians traveled around Moscow, visiting the sights. For many members of the Russian team, which was comprised mainly of athletes from outside Moscow, visiting the capital was a new experience, as well.
Nearing the end of their stay, the groups were treated to a dinner cruise down the Moskva River. The night was one of the most memorable for the American delegation.
“The whole entire experience was so much fun. We took a lot of pictures,” Pine Crest senior Casey Francis said. “We did a lot of dancing.”
Aboard the river cruise, many of the remaining barriers dividing the Americans and the Russians slowly dissolved.
“We were having a blast with the Russians. We were all savoring the night together,” Pine Crest swimmer Anastasia Hediger said. “It really represented what the trip meant. At the beginning, everyone was a little nervous, but on this cruise we all realized we were close friends.”
The end of the trip was sad for everyone involved. The Americans and Russians exchanged their Facebook and Twitter addresses so they could keep in touch. The trip was also an exercise in bartering, with the athletes trading T-shirts and swim caps as memorabilia.
“Even though we’re thousands of miles away, with Facebook and Twitter it’s really easy to keep in touch,” Francis said.
It is not a coincidence that a number of Pine Crest swimmers were chosen for the trip. Pine Crest swimming coach Jay Fitzgerald was selected by U.S. swimming and the Olympic committee to head the American delegation. Fitzgerald was tasked with finding swimmers from around the country but was allowed to bring a number of his swimmers.
Through its year-round club program, Pine Crest has attracted international attention throughout the years.
One of the reasons Fitzgerald was selected to head the trip was because of his previous experience with the Russian delegation. In 2010, U.S. Swimming reached out to Fitzgerald with an interesting proposition.
“They called me and said they had this national youth team from Russia. They wanted to bring them to the United States for two weeks and put them in our swim camp,” he said.
In July 2010, 26 swimmers and six coaches arrived in South Florida to take part in the Youth Exchange Program.
“The whole premise for this sports exchange program is to break down the barriers,” Fitzgerald said. “The beautiful thing about the pool is that it doesn’t know who is American or who is Russian.”