Sept. 25, 2017
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- The Dutch accent that was so noticeable when Nadine de Koning arrived at the University of Virginia in the summer of 2014? It's almost imperceptible now.
"People don't notice anymore," de Koning said. "They're like, `I didn't know you weren't American.' "
A four-year starter on the fourth-ranked UVa field hockey team, which hosts Pacific (4-6) at 1 p.m. Monday at the University Hall Turf Field, de Koning is decidedly not American. She's from Laren, a town about 20 miles from Amsterdam in the Netherlands.
"It's funny, because I guess in American terms it would be considered a suburb of Amsterdam, but if you look at from the Dutch way, it's definitely not," de Koning said. "Because [in the United States] two hours is considered nothing. And in Holland that's far. You can drive through Holland in two hours."
De Koning, whose parents are visiting her in Charlottesville this week, is one of three Dutch players on the Cavaliers' roster, along with sophomore Dominique van Slooten, a starting back, and freshman Pien Dicke, the team's second-leading scorer. Occasionally when they're together, de Koning said, the three will converse in Dutch, but they "try to do it not too much, because sometimes people will start laughing.
"We don't like when people don't know what we're talking about it. So we try to speak English all the time."
Michele Madison, who's in her 12th season as the Wahoos' head coach, was a manager for the U.S. national team in the 1980s. Its head coach then was a Dutch man, Madison said, "so he would always take us to Holland to train. And that's where I really got involved with the Dutch culture and met a lot of Dutch people, and I still have a lot of friends from way back then."
For decades, Madison has recruited the Netherlands, where both men's and women's field hockey are immensely popular. At UVA, she's had multiple players from Holland, including Inge Kaars Sijpesteijn, who was a three-time All-American.
"It's one of their national sports," Madison said. "When you go to that country, everyone has bicycles and hockey sticks: boys, girls, moms, dads."
Playing for a college team in the United States allows players from Holland to combine athletics and academics. "That doesn't exist there," Madison said. "And they all love the camaraderie, the cheering and that part of the sport that they don't really have at home. Because their club teams are made up of all different ages. People come from work. Some of them have kids, families."
The appeal for U.S. coaches is easy to understand.
Dutch players' "possession skills are amazing, because they have a stick in their hand so young," Madison said. "So they're not frazzled by pressure. They know how to draw a foul or get out of a tight pressure situation."
Still, Dutch players who come to the United States face an adjustment period, if only because the sport's profile here is so much lower.
"In Holland, when you talk about field hockey or people come watch your game, they all know what's going on," de Koning said. "I've had friends here come to games and they love it, but they're like, `Why is the ref calling this and that?'
"It's difficult sometimes to explain it, because a lot of people here think about field hockey in terms of ice hockey, most often, and they're so different."
She misses her family and friends back in the Netherlands, as well as the ease with which she traveled around her hometown on her bicycle. And then there's the Dutch cuisine.
"The food is amazing," de Koning said, smiling.
"We have these treats that are called stroopwafel, little thin waffles, and inside is caramel, and you can heat them up in the microwave, and the caramel kind of melts. It's amazing."
She also misses poffertjes, which are similar to pancakes, and herring, which the Dutch love.
"We just it eat like this," de Koning said, pantomiming dropping a fish into her mouth.
Not every American cares to consume fish in such a manner, but when former UVA field hockey player Macy Peebles "came to visit me in Holland, she ate it like that in the Dutch way," de Koning said, smiling.
As an international student, de Koning wasn't sure what to expect in Charlottesville. But she's found the University community welcoming.
"There's something about UVA that makes me feel very at home here," de Koning said. "I don't know if it's UVA or if it's American openness, because I think Americans are very open and welcoming. Whereas in Holland we push back a little more and we're more closed, and once you get to know us, then we'll open up."
Madison has used de Koning in a variety of roles at UVA. As a freshman in 2014, de Koning started at sweep. She was a center back in 2015. De Koning played center back, right back and defensive midfielder last season and helped UVA capture the program's first ACC title.
This fall she's at right back and has eight assists -- second-most on the team -- for the Cavaliers (8-1 overall, 2-0 ACC).
"She's a very good defender, what we call a back-four player," Madison said. "She's just so steady back there and knows the game well. But this year she's really come on strong as a leader.
"We talked about it last year in January when she came back for school, and she said, `My father and I were just having that conversation over Christmas. That's my goal: to be more vocal.' "
De Koning is "always optimistic," Madison said. "She's positive. She's very hard on herself, but she's always fit. She always comes ready to play at practice, and you just kind of forget she's there, because she's always doing her job."
During her college career, de Koning said, she's "gotten a lot stronger and more fit. I think that's mainly because here in this environment, you're around so many athletes and people that want to be the best version of themselves, that pushes you to do more, too."
UVA has won nine straight games since losing 4-2 to Penn State on Aug. 27. The streak includes a 4-1 victory over then-No. 1 Duke in Charlottesville.
Against the Blue Devils, de Koning said, "You could see that the final piece of the puzzle just fit, for some reason. And I think that was mainly because we practiced really hard that week, and Michele really wanted us to focus on being aggressive. It was definitely not an easy week practice-wise, and I think that made us more ready for the Duke game.
"Also, we were very calm in the way we approached the game. I think we were like, `We practiced the best we could, and we're just going to see what happens.' Whereas the Penn State game I think we were more focused on the outcome."
In Holland, De Koning's parents are active in the sport. Her father, Hans, was an elite player and now referees at the club level. He knew that van Slooten was interested in playing field hockey at a Division I school in the United States and so recommended her to Madison.
"And that's how the whole process started," said Nadine, who came from the same club team as van Slooten, who joined her at UVA last year.
De Koning began studying English at any early age but says she was not fluent upon arriving in Charlottesville. That changed quickly.
"After preseason my first year, it got better so fast. It's funny, sometimes you get stuck at the same level for a while, and then two months later, all of the sudden it goes like that," de Koning said, lifting her arm.
"But I think it just helps [to be in a foreign environment]. You can't speak Dutch. No one's going to understand you."
De Koning is a psychology major, with a minor in foreign affairs. Eventually she plans to pursue a master's degree in economic and consumer psychology, de Koning said, but she might continue her field hockey career in Barcelona, Spain, or work in the United States first.
Whatever route she follows, de Koning is glad she chose to become a `Hoo.
"I think it was probably one of the best decisions I've made," she said, "because I've just learned so much and grown so much as a person in so many aspects. And it's not always been easy, but I think that made me like it even more, because I learned to fight my way through tough things."
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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.
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