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'It's Almost Like the End of the World': European NCAA Athletes Return Home to a New Reality

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, many international NCAA athletes have opted to make the long journey home to places like Italy and Spain.

After 30 hours of travel, 15 of those stuck at JFK Airport, Alex Del Rey arrived at the stoop of his home in Madrid, Spain, to strict instructions from his mother.

(1) Drop your three bags in the garage and don’t touch them for two weeks.

(2) Remove your shoes.

(3) Strip.

(4) Put all of your clothes directly into the washing machine.

(5) Immediately take a shower.

Del Rey, a senior on the Arizona State men’s golf team and a native Spaniard, hasn’t hugged, kissed or shook hands with his parents since he arrived home earlier this week. He’s under self isolation after the winding trip halfway across the world. The same goes for Borja Fernandez, a freshman basketball player for Montana State who, after surviving his 36-hour trek home to Spain, speaks to his parents through his bedroom wall and eats from a tray they leave at his door.

Meanwhile, Giovanni Oradini and Davide Tortora, members of the Mississippi State men’s tennis team, traveled together back to their home country of Italy by taking three flights in two different countries and ending up at the Venice airport, where their fathers disobeyed the country’s lockdown order, risking a fine and jail time, to pick them up. “It’s a weird vibe,” Oradini says in an interview this week from Rovereto, Italy, a small mountainous town in the country’s hard-hit northern region. “It’s almost like the end of the world.”

Mississippi State tennis players Giovanni Oradini (left) and Davide Tortora returned home to Italy amidst the pandemic.

Mississippi State tennis players Giovanni Oradini (left) and Davide Tortora returned home to Italy amidst the pandemic.

For thousands of international NCAA athletes, the abrupt end of the college sports season—and college, for that matter—has left them in a bizarre between-worlds limbo, debating whether to stay in the U.S. as the situation deteriorates here or to go home to a country that very well might be dealing with its own severe problems, like Italy or Spain.

For those who did decide to go, a new reality exists: They've faced eerily quiet, half-full planes, staffed with flight attendants in masks and gloves. They've withstood exceptionally long layovers and interminable bus rides. They've landed in some of the world’s most impacted cities, like Madrid and Venice, where it can take three hours just to exit the airport, bustling not with travelers but military personnel checking the temperatures of all who arrived. And when they've finally arrived home, they've been shuffled into quarantine by loved ones they're not even able to hug.

Their home cities are ghost towns, mostly military and law enforcement policing the streets, many of them using amplifiers to remind residents to stay inside. Don’t go out! Don’t go out! “It’s like a war is going on,” Oradini says.

No countries have endured the virus’s wrath quite like Italy and Spain, ranking first and second in death rate. They combine for more than 12,000 of the nearly 24,000 global deaths from the virus, according to statistics from John Hopkins, and they are responsible for one-quarter of the world’s infections. The countries are also home to more than 1,000 Division I and II athletes, per the latest numbers the NCAA released in 2018, with Spain having the fourth-most student-athletes worldwide among non-U.S. countries. Many of them returned home over the last 10 days, a hectic adventure with a destination of a country devastated by the worst pandemic the globe has seen in more than a century.

For precaution’s sake, they have all isolated themselves, at various degrees, within their own homes. Outside of their windows is a disease-torn country. One in every 750 people of Italy have been infected, and in Spain that number is 1 in 800 (for comparison, the US is 1 in 4,000). In each country, a lockdown exists throughout the region, more rigid than the orders existing in America. Only pharmacies, groceries and hospitals are open, and those outside for any other reason can be fined as much as $3,500 and potentially sentenced to as many as three months in jail. Many groceries are limited to small amounts of customers, resulting in a line of people wrapped around city blocks—each spaced at least 6 feet apart. Del Rey lives a 5-minute drive from the Madrid airport, but he needed to Uber home as his parents weren’t allowed to leave their house. Across the street from the Del Rey home is a park, usually teaming with children, parents and dog walkers. On Wednesday, about two dozen police officers staked out under the trees. “There is nothing. No cars. No nothing,” he says. “It’s an empty city.”

Strict rules exist on the road: A max of two people per vehicle, and the passenger must sit in the backseat. Matt Roberts, the Mississippi State men’s tennis coach, says one of his players from Spain returned to Madrid in a car full of people. “They had to duck in the car when passing police,” he says.

So, why did they return home in the first place? Some athletic directors and coaches urged international players to stay in the U.S., and many of them agreed. But as the pandemic worsened here, more players and their parents changed decisions, fearing that travel and border restrictions would keep them or their children trapped in the U.S. for months. In the latest wave of departures this week, some school administrators even required documentation of approval from parents before releasing athletes on such a dicey journey.

Mississippi State tennis players Giovanni Oradini (right) and Davide Tortora while they flew from Frankfurt to Venice.

Mississippi State tennis players Giovanni Oradini (right) and Davide Tortora while they flew from Frankfurt to Venice.

However, some of the 20,000 international NCAA athletes remain in the States living in campus dorms, college town apartments or friends’ homes. At least 200 Spaniards are still in America, says Gonzalo Corrales, one of the founders of AGM, a Spain-based company helping European athletes from the country land NCAA scholarships. AGM sponsors about 850 Spanish-born U.S. college athletes, and roughly 500 of them have trekked back home in two waves—the first two weeks ago and the second in the last week.

The latest wave posed problems. Flights into Spain have decreased drastically. Most of the in-bound flights are only through Iberia Airlines, Corrales says. To get the latest wave of players home, AGM needed help from an Iberia employee, also the mother of an AGM athlete who Corrales kept anonymous. For the parents, this has been a tough time. “Many of the families didn’t know what to do. If you bring them home, you bring them to Spain, which is the worst country in the world right now,” he says in an interview Wednesday, “but who knows what happens. In a week, maybe that area they were living in the U.S. is worse.”

U.S. numbers are climbing at an alarming rate. On Thursday, the country leaped China for the most infections at 85,000. Could American hotspots like New Orleans, New York and Seattle eventually see similar draconian enforcement as Madrid, Venice and Milan? Maybe. While the U.S. might be two to three weeks away from the worst, some of its college athletes are living it now. “It’s crazy,” says Tortora, who lives in the northern Italian town of Verona. “There is not enough space in hospitals. On TV, doctors are choosing between who will live and who will die. There is not enough (ventilators) for the patients.”

Parents are taking extreme caution. Many players arrived to live in a home with their younger siblings. For instance, Fernandez has a 10-year-old brother, part of the reason he’s sequestered in his room, mostly watching game replays of a freshman basketball season cut short. He’s been alone a lot lately. Two weeks ago, during the Big Sky tournament (which would wind up canceled), Fernandez was quarantined in a hotel room for two days and in an apartment for five more after falling ill. After a week, a coronavirus test, thankfully, returned negative. “The league was really worried about me,” he says. “My teammates would have been positive.”

The Oradini family is taking quarantine to a new level. Giovanni is eating at different times as his parents and he’s doing his business in another bathroom. His only contact with his parents has been an elbow bump from dad when he picked him up from the Venice airport. “I don’t know yet if I got something during the trip,” he says, speaking holed up in his bedroom. “My parents are… it’s kind of scary. My dad is 60. If he gets it…”

Not all parents are so careful. Corrales, himself a former U.S. athlete from Spain who competed at TCU and Georgia, warned all families about physically contacting their children in the first 10-14 days that they arrive. “We told them ‘Please, don’t kiss and hug!’” he says, “and then we were getting flooded with photos of parents kissing and hugging them.”

There is no worry of that in the Del Rey home, where Esther Gonzalez made her son hop right into the shower and place all of his luggage, including his golf bag, in the garage. He got approval to remove a few clubs on Wednesday, a day after he got home. There was one condition. “I had to clean them up with disinfectant for 30 minutes,” he chuckles.