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International student athletes from Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom return to their homes in the midst of COVID-19 lockdowns. Graphic by Lilly LaFemina

International student athletes face lockdowns in home countries

“I’m looking out the window and there’s literally nobody,” sophomore guard Silvia Ferreiros of the women’s basketball team said. “It’s like a ghost town.”

For Ferreiros and other University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) international student athletes, going home meant facing the gravity of the COVID-19 outbreak. After UMBC’s decision to move to online learning for the rest of the spring semester, the Athletic Department urged all international student athletes like Ferreiros to return home to avoid the risk of getting stuck in the United States indefinitely.

Ferreiros left the United States on Thursday, March 26 to get back to her hometown of Lugo, Spain. She returned to a country that has over 90,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of April 1 and is under a strict lockdown that permits residents to leave their homes for brief dog walks, grocery store and pharmacy trips, and other “essential” travel. Unlike the United States, the Spanish government does not allow residents outside for exercise.

Ferreiros’ dog gives her a reason to steal a few moments of fresh air every day. She uses the walks to see her friends, waving to them from the street as they stand in their doorways or their windows. The interactions are brief since police patrol the streets of Lugo and other Spanish cities to enforce the lockdown. Anyone caught outside for nonessential reasons can be fined up to €30,000, or 34,400 U.S. dollars.

Besides a large fine, people outside for nonessential reasons face social pressure from those in their homes to obey the lockdown.

“If they [people] see somebody who doesn’t have a dog or that doesn’t look like they were working on something from the windows, people start, like, booing and stuff,” Ferreiros explained.

The patrols and the social pressure give Ferreiros only a few minutes to wave at her friends before people start questioning what she is doing. While she does try to talk to her friends and family over FaceTime and WhatsApp, the exchanges do not feel the same as physically seeing them. 

“It’s hard because you can not, you know, see your friends or anything,” Ferreiros said. “I’ve been here for one week and I haven’t seen my granddad.”

Unlike Ferreiros, who has the luxury of getting to go outside, sophomore guard Paula Rubio of the women’s basketball team has not left her house for over a week and a half. Living in a small apartment with no yard or balcony, Rubio has not felt fresh air since she got back to her home in Madrid, Spain.

Madrid has over 32,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of April 1. What used to be a major tourism hub, Rubio explained, is now quiet and tense as people wonder when the lockdown will end.

Rubio tries to not think about her lack of fresh air and the pandemic outside. Instead, she is using the lockdown to focus on herself. 

“I can just stay in my room and just focus on myself and not think about all the things that are going on outside,” Rubio said.

By establishing a routine that alternates between reading, school work, meditation and workouts, Rubio takes the situation in Madrid day by day. The routine stops her from overthinking and making herself anxious, she says. It also helps her to retain some of the independence she felt in college, despite her 24-hour close quarters confinement with her parents.

Junior midfielder from the men’s soccer team and international exchange student Byrom Mee is not as cooped up as Rubio or Ferreiros.

Mee returned to London, England on Saturday, March 15, a week before the United Kingdom put in place their lockdown. When he landed in London, he was surprised at how relaxed the social distancing practices were. There was no signage or any information regarding the virus, he says.

“The only way I would have known about it was because of the women handing out leaflets,” Mee said.

However, as the death toll rose in the United Kingdom, the British Parliament put the country under lockdown. Unlike Spain’s lockdown, the U.K.’s allows Mee to go outside for an hour a day for exercise. Even that hour outside helps him stay positive, he says. He is currently borrowing a neighbor’s bike and doing the men’s soccer team’s at-home strength routine to keep him active.

“If I haven’t done any exercise during the day, I don’t feel like I’ve achieved much,” he said.

Despite doing the men’s soccer team strength workouts, Mee will not be returning to UMBC this fall. Mee only attended UMBC for a year as a part of his American Studies degree from Swansea University. He will return to Swansea this fall to graduate and play on their varsity soccer team. 

With such a sudden departure from UMBC, Mee left the U.S. unsure of the next time he would return or the next time he would see his now-former teammates.

“It’s a bit of a shame sort of ending like this,” Mee said. “I was looking forward to the last couple of months.”

To keep his spirits up and to put himself in the best shape possible for his final year at Swansea, Mee signed up to be a National Health Service Volunteer Responder. These volunteers help deliver groceries and medications, take people to the hospital and transport equipment to hospitals. He received his ID on Monday and enjoys riding his borrowed bike around town, staying in shape while helping those with underlying conditions.

Senior center Lucrezia Costa of the women’s basketball team has had a much harder time exercising than Mee since coming back to Rome, Italy on Mar. 24. Costa came home to a similar lockdown to Spain’s that does not allow her outside of her property except for a grocery store trip once a week.

“I’ve been trying to buy a treadmill for like five days now, but there’s a shortage because everyone is buying one,” Costa said.

Costa has used running to forget about the coronavirus news since her mother started updating her on Italy’s first lockdown on Mar. 9. Without a means to go outside, she hopes to find a treadmill for sale this week so she can run again.

Despite being unable to run, Costa says classes have helped keep her focused– including her two-hour class that now goes from 9:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. due to Italy’s five-hour time difference. However, she says it is difficult to stay happy after leaving her life in the United States. Even while in the U.S., Costa could not say goodbye to her friends before they left for their own homes because of a two-week quarantine after she came into contact with a UMBC staff doctor that tested positive for COVID-19.

“The hardest thing is just having to quit everything: my life in the U.S., you know, my friends,” Costa said. “And just, you know, drop everything and come here.”

What made things more difficult was an additional two-week quarantine in Italy due to her travel. Besides not being able to see her Italian friends, Costa can not visit her other family despite them living only 200 meters away. The lack of contact makes Costa even miss strangers.

“You don’t know how much you miss people’s, even strangers, contact, just looking at them until it’s taken away,” Costa said.

Returning to their homes in the top 10 countries with the most coronavirus cases, these student athletes faced both the relaxed regulations of the United States as well as their countries’ strict lockdowns. To many of them that now live without the feeling of fresh air or the freedom to go more than a few hundred yards from their home, they hope their friends back in the U.S. take the situation seriously.

“Trust whoever knows more, if it’s the governor or whatever,” Costa said. “If they tell you to not go out, then don’t go out, or limit it to the minimum because it really sucks to be in this situation.”