International track and field student-athletes relocate to the United States every year to pursue an education and a sports career.
Netherlands native and Gators freshman Alida Van Daalen took that risk when she joined the Florida track and field program and made her debut in January.
Within a few months, she held a SEC indoor and outdoor title in shotput and was awarded the 2023 SEC Outdoor Women's Freshman Field Athlete of the Year.
Her decision to commit to UF’s track and field team was not an easy one despite the accomplishments to come.
“People were DMing me, ‘Oh are you interested in going to the U.S.?’” Van Daalen said. “I didn’t reply. I didn’t know I wanted to move to the U.S. because I had my mom as my coach.”
Van Daalen grew up training under her mother in Rotterdam and earned her first gold in discus at the European U20 Championship 2019. She became a standout athlete after she participated in major championships over the past three years.
Gators throw coach Eric Werskey consistently reached out to Van Daalen for several months in 2022.
“I would actually message her directly and she would always kindly say, ‘No I'm not interested,'” Werskey said. “I think it was like four to six times she just told me flat-out no.”
It wasn’t until he reached out to her mother that Van Daalen became interested in hearing more about the school.
“Whenever you initially reach out about potential scholarship opportunities, they don’t fully understand what that encompasses,” Werskey said.
Van Daalen met Coach Werskey during her first official visit to UFs campus in October 2022. A few weeks later, she made her commitment to the team.
“I was in my comfort zone and if you are in your comfort zone, you’re not growing,” she said.
Van Daalen arrived on campus two months later to start her new chapter as a member of Florida's track and field team.
There was a significant change in culture from the Netherlands to the United States for the incoming freshman.
”The food was the biggest culture shock,” Van Daalen said. “You’re used to a certain way to eat and it changes a lot.”
Van Daalen missed her mom’s cooking. The dining hall and American food could not compete with traditional homemade meals.
Food wasn’t the only change in pace for the European champion.
“The competitions in the U.S. are much tougher,” Van Daalen said. “It was hard at first but it made me tougher to perform at a higher stage.”
There is much more range of competition in the United States compared to what she experienced in Europe, Van Daalen said.
“You need to be prepared for what’s coming,” Van Daalen said. “Everybody wants to win in the U.S., everybody is very good and strong.”
Although the challenge was promising, Van Daalen said moving away from home can be a difficult transition.
“I’m a very big family person,” Van Daalen said. “That was I think the hardest part, I would not see my grandparents for a long time and my other family members.”
Van Daalen gained support from her new family in the Gators track and field program. She said everyone in the program motivated each other through training and competition. Despite the support, Van Daalen didn’t know what to expect upon arriving in Gainesville.
“You don’t know how coach Werskey coaches, how the group responds to you as an athlete, and how the school helps you with whatever you need,” she said.
She quickly discovered a sense of community among her coaches and teammates that made her feel more at ease.
The two-time European champion in the discus quickly adjusted to competing without her mom coaching right by her side.
Her goal became to continue what her mom helped her achieve in her youth.
“In the beginning, you have no idea what you are doing, so just get the help that you need and let the people of the University of Florida and the gators support you,” Van Daalen said. “And when you’re ready to do it yourself, you can do it yourself.“
Hailey Hurst is a second-year journalism major with a focus in sports media and a sports reporter for The Alligator. In her free time, she enjoys going to the beach and cheering for Miami sports teams.