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Foreign exchange students adjust to Wisconsin with Panther pride

Ellsworth's 2018 foreign exchange students -- Godwin Gapke (front row left) Alvaro Torres (front row right), Ainara Perez, Sara Fumagelli, Ceci Gonzalez, Afonso Torres and Manuel Potes -- reaped the benefits of participating on athletic teams during their time in Western Wisconsin. Katie Davidson / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 2
Afonso Boas and Alvaro Torres, two of Ellsworth's 2018 foreign exchange students, share a hug after claiming a Middle Border Conference title in the 4x400-meter relay at the conference meet in Osceola on Tuesday, May 15. Boas, Torres and their teammates Jared Lansing and Max Ekvern-Jamme went on to qualify for the 2018 WIAA State Track and Field meet in La Crosse where they finished in 16th place in preliminaries with a time of 3:34.10. Katie Davidson / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 2

Before spending their school year in the small Wisconsin town that's home to less than 4,000 people, Ellsworth was nothing but a small speck on a world map to seven of Ellsworth High School's 2018 foreign exchange students.

"Before I was here, I didn't even know what Ellsworth, Wis. was," Afonso Boas of Portugal said.

"But now that I'm here, I've gotten to meet a lot of people and have grown to like the small town. There are other small towns in the area, but I feel like they are not as good as Ellsworth. Ellsworth has pride in itself."

Boas, Godwin Gakpe, Sara Fumagelli, Ceci Gonzalez, Ainara Perez, Manuel Potes and Alvaro Torres all traveled across the world to spend their junior years of high school as Ellsworth Panthers. Although they all had to get used to many cultural alterations when they first arrived, the seven student-athletes left their homes away from home with new friends, cultural appreciation and love for the once unknown, small town in Western Wisconsin.

What eased the students' adjustments to their new lives in Wisconsin? Becoming members of Ellsworth Panthers sports teams.

Participating on a school-organized athletic team wasn't an option for the seven students whose home countries of Ghana, Italy, Portugal and Spain limited them to joining club teams. Because of this, becoming a member of a close-knit team was an opportunity that they all jumped at. Not only did participating in Ellsworth athletics help the newcomers find a healthy balance with the sugary American foods they indulged in, but their new teams also granted them a sense of belonging among the Panther proud.

Boas and Gakpe had hoped to play soccer in Ellsworth when they arrived, but after the disappointing news that the Panthers' only football team was the kind that played with a pigskin ball, Gakpe decided to try out for the cross country team with Torres.

"When I came, there was a language barrier because my accent was different," Gakpe said. "That was hard, but we overcame it and became like a family."

Fumagelli and Perez's experiences on the volleyball team were similar. "I'm glad that I did sports here, because I met great people," Perez said.

Perez also commented on the tremendous amount of fan support in Ellsworth that she wasn't accustomed to after playing club sports in Spain.

"People who cheer for you in our countries don't go to your games," Perez said. "To see all of the Ellsworth community cheering for us just makes you say, 'Wow.'"

Because of their developed love for playing on Panther teams, when the spring sports season began to approach, all seven students decided to try out for the track and field team. Torres and Boas even made their way to the 2018 WIAA State Track Meet with Jared Lansing and Max Ekvern-Jamme after their 4x400-meter relay team qualified to compete at UW-La Crosse.

Wade Kowalchyk, head coach of the Panthers' boys' track team, described Torres, who ran club track in Spain, as a "heady" runner who worked hard on improving his strategy and gaining endurance.

Boas, a long-time soccer player, was less able to rely on natural talent to become a state qualifier. "Afonso had farther to go so to speak," Kowalchyk said. "We had to change a few things with his running form because of how different the game of soccer is played."

Kowalchyk challenged Boas to focus on creating longer strides, using more arm swing and not looking back or around while racing. As he made adjustments, the 4x400 team began to see their times drop and their confidence rise.

Boas and Torres originally planned on making their open 400- and 800-meter races their top priorities, but the two soon fell for the idea of running for others, not just themselves.

Kowalchyk described Torres as a calculated, intelligent runner who thrives on intensity. Boas, Kowalchyk said, has a knack for turning his nervousness into a toughness that allowed him to make sacrifices for his teammates.

"If I give a goal time to Afonso," Kowalchyk said, "he just tells me 'I will do it coach.' They both certainly added a flair to the team and were always positive, hard-working, loving and living in the moment."

"Everybody had the pressure of not letting the others down," Torres said. "For Max, I didn't want to let him down because it was his senior year. Or for Fons, he was a foreign exchange student, so I didn't want to take away his chance of going to a state meet. We made it for each other."

Boas and Torres, along with their five fellow foreign exchange students, came to Wisconsin looking for an opportunity to get out of their comfort zones and take in a new culture, but they left with lasting relationships with Ellsworth teammates and coaches that have taught them what it means to be a part of a family-like team.

"You don't have the pride of saying, 'Look what I did,'" Torres said after his relay team qualified for the state meet, "but you have the pride of saying, 'Look what we did.' You get that team feeling that everyone here has in Wisconsin and the United States."

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