student-athletes partook in the 'A.V.E.' classroom experience during their study abroad trip to South Africa.

Irish Extra: Blog #3 from Notre Dame Study Abroad Program in South Africa

June 10, 2015 Photo Gallery

The University of Notre Dame student-athletes’ time spent in Cape Town represented the bulk of their trip, a chance for the travel-weary bunch to fall into a steady rhythm that included gym time, class time, good times and frequent trips into the surrounding townships. 

Upon arrival, the first order of business was meeting with a local security professional, who immediately advised the group to not carry cash nor to use credit/debit cards. I knew the student-athletes were going to learn a variety of things in South Africa, although I didn’t anticipate bartering being one of them.

With financial matters settled, the following morning gave the student-athletes their first opportunity to visit the Sports Science Institute, the place where they would work out for the rest of the trip. I was inspired by their eagerness to get to the gym, and so I joined in an attempt to piggyback off their enthusiasm. Inspiration quickly turned to misery, as I pulled close to a muscle per minute during strength coach Elisa Angeles’ warm-up. If you don’t use it, you indeed lose it. Disappearing, sulking off into the corner of the room, I finished the session with an old-man bodyweight workout (six pushups) while I watched golfer Matt Rushton lift more weight than I possibly could have. I tried to find pictures of myself in a jersey on my phone to see if I really had been an athlete, because at that moment it could have easily all passed for a dream. 

The most interesting gym storyline that developed became the swim challenge Jerry Tillery extended to swimmers Cat Galletti and Katie Miller, a promise that he could beat them in a one-length sprint. This pleasant trash talk took place in the week leading up to our arrival, and it didn’t take much more than a glance into the pool from Jerry to realize that he had made a terrible, terrible mistake. Thankfully for the big boy, the ladies were kind enough to indefinitely postpone the race.

Morning workouts were always followed by breakfast at the cottages, and then living room class sessions that can only be described as the Anré Venter Experience. The A.V.E. is a controlled, chaotic, non-linear journey through topics ranging from self to language to religion to social networks to apartheid to anything and everything. Attempting to glean some information on the A.V.E. before it started, several students approached and asked what it was like to have Anré as a professor, to which I confessed that it was the only time I’d ever been given a pop final. So when the pop final was delivered three weeks later, they only had themselves to blame.

In the afternoons after class, when the South African winter rain stayed out of the way, we ventured into several of the Cape Town townships, where the student-athletes participated in both the Hoops for Hope and Grassroots Soccer programs. Both programs use the medium of sport to preach positive messages, build leadership qualities, as well as provide HIV/AIDS education for young children. Having Ruth Riley made a tremendous impact in this area for the student-athletes, as she continually challenged them to be mindful of the people with whom they interacted. It’s easy to get caught up in the “postcard” version of this experience, but she consistently offered a widened perspective, a perspective she has cultivated over years of personal service in this region.  

One evening the student-athletes were fortunate enough to be paid a visit from South African icon Chester Williams. Chester, effectively the Jackie Robinson of South African rugby, was a star winger who played for the 1995 World Cup championship team (subject matter of the movie Invictus). Listening to his life story was fascinating, from battling constant discrimination to having Nelson Mandela as a wedding guest to shooting the breeze with Clint Eastwood and Matt Damon. The highlight of his visit, however, was when he offered Jaylon Smith some tackling advice (rugby consistently has lower incidences of head and neck injuries compared to football). Watching the two grapple in the living room was one of those moments I think we’ll look back on and say, “Did that really happen?” Especially if Jaylon finds a way to force more fumbles this season. 

One of the most rewarding aspects of the time in Cape Town was having the opportunity to watch the group of students actually become a group.  The word family gets thrown around a lot in sports context, but usually only when referencing one specific team. With representatives from seven different Notre Dame squads consistently gathered under one roof, watching the personalities and the different roles of this family emerge was nothing short of a treat.   

It was hard to grasp that the two “babies” of the family, Jerry Tillery and fencer Francesca Russo, are indeed babies. Francesca, especially, easily the most travelled and arguably the most accomplished athletically of the group (having won an NCAA title as a freshman), displayed a level of maturity beyond most (including the adults), although when I challenged her to a match of “air fencing,” she couldn’t resist.  

When asked how this trip stacked up to her other worldly adventures, it was evident that Francesca was thankful for the chance to actually take time and enjoy a city, rather than always having competition being the central focus. She was also the only one smart enough to bring laundry detergent, which she claims I lost, although I distinctly remember pouring the blue Tide into a coffee mug and returning the jug to its previous home. I guess we’ll never know. What we do know, however, is that one of the biggest successes of this study abroad program has been the opportunity for the student-athletes to be just students. Yes, they worked out every day, but for three weeks they were able to experience a country and a culture that perhaps they would have been forced to skim over had they been here for competition. 

One of the best moments of the trip happened, of all places, on the bus. While traveling into the townships, Jerry tried to throw a soccer ball to another student but ended up nailing the overhead compartment instead, causing enough commotion for Professor Venter to scream, “Jerry, you are a bull in a china shop!” Without missing a beat, Jerry calmly replied, “They actually did a MythBusters episode on that, and the bull just walks up and down the aisles.” It was as if Jerry had been waiting for this moment his entire life, his delivery perfect, and the result an entire bus unable to stop laughing.   

The rain broke on the last day, and we were able to take the cable car to the top of Table Mountain and also venture out to Cape Point. It wasn’t until then that we realized why so many people have been saying that Cape Town is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. With mountains as far as the eye could see, Atlantic and Indian oceans colliding against each other, neighborhoods nestled in the foothills, it’s truly a city beyond comparison.    

At the end of the two weeks in Cape Town, the students were ready to go home. As we landed in Washington, D.C., after another 20-hour travel day, we made our ways to separate connecting flights, exchanging hugs and phone numbers. One of the best things about traveling is that when the trip is done, you do get to go home, to return to your life with fresh eyes and an altered perspective. With what the students have seen and learned on this trip, their real work begins now, and that’s figuring out how to use these experiences to create better versions of themselves and better versions of the world around them. After getting to know them over the course of the past three weeks, I doubt that will be much of an obstacle, especially with the new family members they’ve acquired along the way.


                                                                                    — by Zach Hillesland, special correspondent