Studying abroad is a decision many athletes consider. From the change in culture, to a new training style, international athletes find both challenges and achievements while overseas. This article will be the start of a series that describes the experiences of athletes who have trained abroad.
Since the age of 12, Claire Mooney has been immersed in the sport of athletics. Her focus started with sprinting while she was in primary school but changed to the 800 meter when she joined a track and field team in America. The decision to take her studies abroad not only changed her best event, but also put her name on the map. From qualifying for NCAA championships to discovering her desired career path, Mooney returned to Ireland with pride.
“A lot of Irish athletes have gone on sports scholarships to America, so it was always something I considered growing up,” Mooney explained.
She received offers from two other colleges in America, but a Catholic university in New York City stood out: St. John’s University. A friend from her running club attended the school in the 80’s, which sparked her interest in both the academics and athletics they offered. St. John’s invited Mooney to visit the school, because of her initial interest, for a 48-hour tour.
The school brought her to a race at Madison Square Garden and the electrifying atmosphere of school spirit helped make her decision to attend the school in the Fall that much easier. What sold Mooney was the fact that the schools’ track team consisted of solely female athletes. This was due to Title IX, which prohibits discrimination based on gender in educational programs or activities. The school eliminated six sports programs, including the Men’s Track and Field team, to ensure the male to female athlete ratio was similar to enrollment. Currently, women make up 58% of the student athletes.
In 2011, Mooney joined the freshman class and began her training on the track and field team. Like many, adapting to the new American culture took time. As a teenager attending college for the first time, this leap of faith proved to be even more of a challenge.
“I have to say, it took me about a year to really settle in,” Mooney explained.
However, her teammates and coaches took her under their wing and helped her adapt to life in America. She believes the small community at St. John’s allowed for that camaraderie.
Mooney originally thought she would study Business Law in university, but started her first semester at St. John’s as undecided in the Liberal Arts and Science college. Many American universities allow their students to declare as undecided during their first year. They provide them with a large array of classes to help them narrow down their interests without requiring a change in major.
“You can have a little more time to consider your options, and that’s not available in Ireland,” Mooney said, “The kind of broader approach to education in the U.S. appealed to me as well. I could go in without being definite on what I was going to come out with as a degree.”
She made a decision to study science instead of joining the business school.
While pursuing her degree, Mooney began to excel in her sport. The team would train every day except for Sundays with multiple training sessions each day. She would lift three times a week, typically after a training day, all while balancing her full class schedule.
Each student athlete at St. John’s was assigned an academic mentor to ensure their success in both sports and academics. Mooney explained that student athletes were allowed to register for classes before the rest of the students to schedule appropriately around their training. The mentor would speak to professors about any conflicts that may arise, and even proctor exams if the team had to travel to a competition.
The close proximity of the track, the weight room, her dorm, and the dining halls allowed for more time to train as the team rarely had to travel for practice.
“I think in Ireland now, they are getting a track at the UCG campus, which is good, but up until this point there hasn't been one,” Mooney said.
She liked that U.S. universities had training facilities on campus to save athletes time during their already busy schedules. The only time the team had to travel to train was during the winter when the outdoor track was covered in snow. They would be driven in a van by the coaches to an indoor facility about once or twice a week during the cold season.
Besides her title as an Irish Junior National Champion, Mooney never felt she was in the spotlight until she began training abroad. After joining the team at St. John’s, her achievements progressed with the addition of a new event in which she had never believed she was capable of succeeding in.
During April of her senior year, Aliann Pompey, the team's coach and a four-time Olympian, told her that she was going to be an 800-meter runner. Mooney didn't believe her but agreed to try it during a down-week. She ran a 2:06 in a non-paced race, setting a school record and winning the race. She then realized she had a better chance in making it to nationals with the 800 because it was, “a more tactical race.”
She was named to the U.S. Track & Field and Cross-Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) NCAA Division I Outdoor Track & Field All-America Team within two months.
Being named All-American is an enormous accomplishment for American athletes. It is a title that is recognized throughout all sports in the nation. Athletes must qualify in the top 16 at a NCAA event to be considered for the title. The top 8 receive First Team, and the top 16 receive Second Team. She finished 15th at the NCAA Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Oregon which qualified her for the Second-Team All-American status.
“It is quite ironic as I am not an American, but I would be named All-American,” Mooney said.
She expressed how the honour was a big reassurance for the athletics department at St. John’s.
“I think it was really exciting for my college because they have given me so much in 5 years, with the scholarship, and undergrad and a master’s degree, so I felt that it was a really great thing to pay them back as well because it’s a big deal for the university,” she said.
Mooney said that her time in the United States helped her both achieve academic excellence and improve in her sport. Her coaches pushed her to compete in an event out of her comfort zone, where she was able to find the race she was meant to compete in. Mooney attended graduate school at the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School in Dublin with a sports scholarship. She believes her time training at St. John’s helped her earn that award.
For athletes who are considering joining a college team abroad, Mooney believes it is important to look at the academics of the university to see what would suit their interests best.
“Don’t make your decision solely on your sport because that is only one aspect of your college experience and you want to come out with a degree at the end of the day,” she said.
She also noted that there is a perception that Ireland has better academics than the U.S., which deters some athletes from studying there. However, she explained that prospective students shouldn’t be afraid.
“I just really think that the education I received was excellent and I have gotten a good job since I came home with it,” Mooney said.
After graduating, Mooney has been working in the Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association in Scientific Regulatory Affairs. She plans to take the next year off to focus on athletics. She believes that she is in a place in her life where she has a degree and job experience, so taking time off would not affect her future. She will be training with Joe Ryan and focusing on managing her own training schedule for her future in athletics.
Mooney joined St. John’s University a small-town girl from Ireland and left a champion. Although she had to overcome cultural differences, she made the most out of her experience in America.
“It takes a lot of bravery to go abroad,” she said.