Many people know ASU is a top destination for Arizona students and students across the country, but what is less known is that it is also a premiere destination for athletes from across the world.
In all, 45 Sun Devils hail from 16 countries other than the U.S.
While athletes come from all over the globe to compete at ASU, only one comes from China, and that is water polo’s Gao Ao.
Gao, a junior 2-meter defender, was a Chinese Olympian. She played in the 2008 Olympics in her hometown of Beijing as well as the 2012 games in London.
In China, water polo players have the choice of playing water polo for the national team or going to school, but not both, Gao said. She said focusing on water polo was too much for her.
“You can’t do anything,” she said. ”You stay (in the training camp) like six days and you only have Sunday off. And then you don’t study and you don’t do anything except practice.”
She made the decision that her education was important and wanted to go to school, but she also didn’t want to give up playing water polo.
To gauge their interest, Gao sent out emails to American schools that would let her go to school and play water polo. One of those emails was received by Todd Clapper, ASU’s water polo coach.
At the time, Clapper coached the New Zealand national team, and remembered playing against Gao.
The familiarity with Clapper, as well as more feasible academic admission requirements than California schools, brought Gao to ASU.
In 2010, Gao decided to leave China. She said Chinese rules dictate that athletes cannot play abroad, so she lied to the team to get to the U.S.
While taking time off from playing, she visited American schools. She told the Chinese team that she was ill and was incapable returning to China.
“I came here in 2011, and after they found out, they were pissed,” she said.
The team never gave up on her though, she said, and asked her if she would return to play in the 2012 Olympics. She obliged and played in what would become her final Olympic Games. She said she believes she is done competing at the international level.
As the only Chinese athlete, Gao said she has few cultural connections among other ASU athletes.
“I’m a little bit lonely,” she said. “I feel like I (don’t) have the same feelings as my teammates did.”
She said there are international athletes on the water polo team, but most of them are from similar national backgrounds, which helps them bond.
She said she still returns home to China in the summer to see her family, and that the trips help ease the homesickness.
Across the world from Beijing sits the small town of Keflavík, Iceland, the home of senior swimmer David Adalsteinsson.
Like Gao, Adalsteinsson sent out emails to schools to see if they were interested in him. ASU was Adalsteinsson’s top choice from the beginning, and when it came down to it, it was an easy decision.
“When I got an email from ASU, I knew I wanted to go here,” he said.
The warm Tempe weather was a deciding factor for Adalsteinsson. Despite the frigid temperatures in Iceland, though, Adalsteinsson said he still trained outdoors, even in the winter.
“It was freezing,” he said. “We always go in the hot tub after practice, and sometimes our hair would freeze.”
He said he never looked into Icelandic schools for the same reason Gao did not look at Chinese ones. A swimmer cannot compete in swim and study in Iceland, and Adalsteinsson wanted to do both.
“It’s known all around the world to go to the U.S. for swimming,” he said. “(American schools) try to design the program so that you can do both.”
Adalsteinsson said the biggest change coming to school in America is the rigors of the practice schedule. He said he was used to about 16 hours per week in the pool, a number that is up to 24 hours at ASU.
Adalsteinsson still makes it home to see his family for Christmas, as well as in the summertime. He keeps his native flag in his room and brings back as much Icelandic food as possible to remind him of home.
But it’s not just the smaller sports that lure the international talent. A Canadian dresses for ASU football, and three international athletes play men’s basketball, including junior forward Jon Gilling.
Gilling was born in the country of Liechtenstein but grew up in the town of Hørsholm, Denmark.
He said coming to America to play basketball was always in his plan.
“It’s been a dream since I was a little kid to play college basketball,” Gilling said. “Here (are) the best facilities, and you get exposure, and you compete with the best.”
In Denmark, Gilling played on the Danish national team and said he played against several European NBA players.
He said it wasn’t a huge change when he came to the U.S., because he had been here before.
“There are definitely some things I have to get used to,” Gilling said.
He said the food, the school system and stricter American coaches are all examples of things to which he had to adjust.
One date Gilling always looks forward to is when ASU visits the University of Washington as his sister, Mathilde Gilling, is a sophomore center/forward for the Huskies.
Gilling said he keeps certain things at his Arizona home to remind him of his home in Denmark. He has a Danish flag on a Michael Jordan poster, and his home furnishings remind him of home in a way.
“I know it’s not ‘home home,’ but all my furniture is from IKEA,” Gilling said while laughing.
While Gao and Adalsteinsson said they sent emails to many schools, Gilling was a little different. He said one of his coaches back home had a friend at ASU and knew the team was a looking for a player like him.
Gao, Adalsteinsson and Gilling all came from very different backgrounds and all three travelled a combined 16,308 miles from their hometowns to Tempe.
All three knew they wanted to compete at the collegiate level. All three knew they wanted to come to America. And when it was all said and done, all three knew they wanted to become Sun Devils.
Reach the reporter at justin.emerson or follow him on Twitter @J15Emerson
Correction: Because of an editing error, a photo of former Sun Devil swimmer Daniel Jurgs was incorrectly identified as David Adalsteinsson. The photo has been removed.