By Rob Moseley
When a group of Oregon student-athletes arrived in a small Nicaragua town last week to build a sports court for the local school, mutual curiosity between the Ducks and the local kids was immediate.
The ability to communicate? That took a little more time.
“You would say, ‘I don’t know,’ and they don’t even know ‘I don’t know,’” football player Jeff Lockie said. “The language barrier, day one, was funny to watch. But then eventually you figure out how to talk to them in non-verbal ways, and figure it out.”
Over the course of a week, Lockie, 18 other Ducks and five athletic department staff members bridged the language barrier, laid the foundation for a multi-purpose athletic court and gained a new appreciation for their fellow athletes in other sports.
Football player Tyler Johnstone “could talk to anyone,” soccer coach Kat Mertz recalled, while the local kids “had never seen anyone as tall as” football player T.J. Daniel, 6-foot-6. Track and field sprinter Chris Stubbs wowed the locals -- and his fellow Ducks -- in goal during one of the frequent, spirited games of soccer against the school kids. And acrobatics and tumbling team members Brandy Duren (5-2), Zoey Johsz (5-1) and Miranda Merkison (4-9) weren’t to be outworked carrying heavy loads of cement, rocks and sand as part of the court-building process.
“Our team was unbelievable,” said Mertz, who was joined by men’s tennis coach Nils Schyllander and three other administrators on the trip. “Just so adaptive and positive.
“For me to see acro and golf and football, you look around and go, there’s a reason why there are so many Pac-12 champions here. There are some great kids.”
This was the third year the department’s “O Heroes” program, now overseen by director of student-athlete development Katie Harbert, organized such a trip. A contingent of Ducks visited Dominican Republic and Peru previously, and traveled last week to a school near Chinandega, Nicaragua.
The administrators and student-athletes gained a new appreciation for the comforts they enjoy back at home. They also contended with scorpions, aggressive bugs and unrelenting heat and humidity that spurred Schyllander to joke at one point that he felt like “98 percent sweat, two percent Nils.”
The student-athletes on the trip included Lockie, Johnstone, Daniel and Joe Walker from football; Duren, Johsz and Merikson from acro; Koral Costa and Sara Goodrum from softball; Amanda Delgado and Katie Gruys from women’s basketball; Max Carter and Noah Sheikh from men’s golf; Martenne Bettendorf from volleyball, Stubbs and Anetra Brown from track and field, Alison Scharkey from lacrosse, Monica Petchakan from women’s golf and Allie Rodriguez from soccer.
Rodriguez is fluent in Spanish, and thus became invaluable to the group as a translator. After the UO contingent arrived in Nicaragua on Sunday, June 15, they spent Monday through Thursday building the court. On Friday, locals held a celebration to express their thanks, at which Rodriguez addressed the locals on behalf of the Ducks.
“I was really proud of her,” said Mertz, Rodriguez’s coach with the soccer team. “It was just great to see for her confidence.”
The Ducks stayed at a local foster home, which provided housing and meals. They had about a mile walk each way to the school, after a bus ride of more than three hours from the airport upon arriving in Nicaragua.
The first day of construction involved much digging and hauling away of dirt and rocks. That was followed by more tough manual labor, mixing hundreds of massive bags of cement with heavy bucketfuls of rocks and sand to lay the foundation for the court.
The hottest day of the trip, Wednesday, coincided with the Ducks’ longest work day, a 12-hour marathon. Usually a daily rain storm provided a respite, but the Ducks got no such relief Wednesday, as they pushed to finish the court in time to enjoy some sight-seeing the remainder of the trip.
The principal of the school told the Ducks, “you guys taught us a lot about hard work and work ethic,” Mertz recalled.
The court was finished Thursday morning, after which the Ducks got a chance to visit the beach. Friday featured the appreciation ceremony by the locals, followed by a trip into the city’s marketplace. On Saturday, the Ducks visited a dormant volcano, Cosiguina.
Getting to the volcano required a rocky drive in the back of a flatbed truck that caused some motion sickness. Riding in open air necessitated more battles with aggressive bugs, and the Ducks ran out of water on their hike to the mouth of the volcano, which also required avoiding poisonous flora.
But like the week as a whole, the end result made all the Ducks’ relative hardships worth it.
“We finally made it to the top, and you could see El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua,” Mertz said. “It was beautiful.”
The Ducks returned home the next day, following a week they’ll never forget.
“I went in with no idea what to expect,” Lockie said. “I knew I’d be working and knew I’d be learning. But I had no idea I’d have so much fun.”