BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- The young men ease through the water with a graceful power, making one lap after another of the pool.

They’re the Bridgeport Purple Knights, and it’s time to warm up after making the trip down from Connecticut on Monday. For these student-athletes, though, that particular jaunt was nothing because home for them is a lot further away than the northeastern United States.

The Bridgeport swimmers here this week are from Serbia, Poland, Spain and Kazakhstan -- and that’s just the ones who qualified for this year’s NCAA Division II Winter National Championships Festival. The school’s roster also includes student-athletes from Italy and Brazil, in addition to the United States.

Once they fully commit to it, they understand how when they buy into the team, the neat thing is that they get a team buying into them.
-- Brad Flood

It didn’t happen by accident. Head coach Brad Flood has an extensive background with international athletes and competition, having led Poland’s Artur Wojdat to nine NCAA Division I individual championships while they were at Iowa. In 1992, Flood served as head coach of the Polish Olympic swim team at the Summer Games in Barcelona, Spain.

There, Rafal Szukala won the silver medal in the 100-meter butterfly. NCAA national championships and Olympic medals? Those kinds of things didn’t go unnoticed by Bridgeport’s current swimmers.

“For me, it was very important, first of all, to compete with one of the best coaches in the world,” said Krzysztof Wilk, a graduate student in finance from Krakow, Poland. “That was one of the reasons I decided to come to Bridgeport. Another reason was I wanted to finish my master’s degree over here, and coach gave me the opportunity. I’m so happy I’m here.”

It doesn’t hurt, either, that Bridgeport in general already has a large population of international students. It’s also just a fairly quick train ride down to New York, the great multicultural melting pot itself.

“One of the biggest reasons is future job and career opportunities,” said Vladislav Paskas, a sophomore international business major from Zrenjanin, Serbia. “Bridgeport, I think, is in kind of the perfect location to New York. That, to me, is one of the most important reasons -- for the internships, jobs and stuff like that.”

Now in their fourth year of competition, Purple Knight swimmers won at least one NCAA Division II individual national championship in each of the team’s first three seasons and a total of four altogether. Arzua, Spain’s Oscar Pereiro turned in a record time of 46.99 seconds to win last year’s 100-yard breaststroke event.

He’s back for more in 2013, in both his individual and team relay races.

“It is nice,” Pereiro said. “We probably have one of the smallest teams. We are six guys going to the meet, and if you compare it to top-eight, top-10 teams, they probably have ten or over ten guys there. We have quality, and they have a bigger number of swimmers. We’ll see how it goes.”

Big team or small, these student-athletes make Flood’s job “so much easier just because of their commitment and outlook.” Still, the veteran coach has always faced certain challenges when it comes to working with international student-athletes.

Pereiro

The most obvious one, of course, is the language barrier. Working with so many kids from so many different countries, Flood has a steadfast rule, however, that only English is to be spoken at any team function, whether it’s at a meet, practice, meal or while on the road traveling.

“What that does is allow everyone to feel comfortable,” said Flood, who also coaches Bridgeport’s women’s swim team. “I’ve spent enough time in Poland, in a room full of people speaking Polish, to be comfortable with not knowing what they’re saying. Still, in the back of my mind, I wonder if they’re saying anything about me. We want to try and eliminate that.”

Incoming student-athletes aren’t roomed with someone who speaks the same native tongue if English is his or her second language. That has led to some interesting situations through the years, not the least of which took place when he had Serbian and Croatian girls rooming together.

Formerly part of Yugoslavia, the countries have had at the very best a chilly relationship and at worst, been at war.

“I don’t get into geopolitical things, and I really wasn’t sensitive to their hard-core differences,” Flood said. “We had an open room and a kid coming in, and I set them up [to room together]. About a day before our Serbian girl showed up, it kind of dawned on me.

“These are young kids. They’re part of the change. They ended up rooming together for the next three years and became best of friends. They never had any issues. The commonality of the sport is what I think melts away all of those preconceived things that maybe have been ingrained in them back home.”

Over and above the language barrier is the fact that the United States is the only country in the world where sports programs are offered at the intercollegiate level. That leaves student-athletes with two choices -- they can either keep swimming and delay school, or go to school and basically forget about swimming.

“Here in the United States, it’s a team sport,” Flood said. “Our American kids come in with a great understanding of team, unity and working together. Relay teams are really important because they pay more points at the championships.

“In America, a kid would almost rather be on a relay than an individual event. The international kids come in, and it’s almost a 180-degree difference. Most of them back home disdain having to swim on a relay, because it’s going to maybe interfere in their personal success.”

Understanding and then believing the team concept ... it’s what Flood calls a “team ’tude.”

“Once they fully commit to it, they understand how when they buy into the team, the neat thing is that they get a team buying into them,” Flood said.