Our Senegal Basketball visitors spent ten unforgettable days in Knoxville becoming true Tennessee Volunteers. These 15 to 18-year-old French-speaking basketball players trained with UT athletics, engaged with students in university classes, ate at KFC (their favorite), and cheered louder than anyone else in Thompson Bowling Arena during two Lady Vols basketball games.
During their first few days, they explored the beauty of the Smoky Mountains on a day hike and visited the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame – a highlight for most of the team.
“This (WBHoF) is not something we have in my country,” said Coach Henriette, the first female basketball referee in Senegal. “We don’t know what you all had to go through to play basketball, so that was a very good experience for me.”
Once the week began, it seemed these girls never stopped! They spent time in the Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex working on their endurance and strength with Coach Heather Mason, learning ACL prevention techniques from UT’s Jenny Moshak, and trying some homemade peanut butter and protein smoothies from nutritionist Allison Mauer. And of course, they played a lot of basketball.
In the afternoons, they visited a few after school programs including Girls, Inc. and the YWCA. At Girls, Inc. the Senegalese team transitioned from students to teachers as they were asked to lead the girls of Girls, Inc. in a series of basketball drills and games. This was a great opportunity for the Senegalese team to showcase their leadership abilities and to serve as role models for the younger girls participating in the after-school program.
On the last day, at end of the last Lady Vols game, these girls had a surprise in store for them. Lady Vols Strength Coach Heather Mason ushered them down stairs, past curtains, and through doorways until they had reached the locker room of the Lady Vols. Their excitement could hardly be contained, and as soon as the first Lady Vol entered the room, our girls burst into cheers, hugs and tears. When the first emotional wave had passed, the girls circled around the locker room to show the Lady Vols their team cheer. Before long, the two teams were dancing together, despite language and cultural differences. Through their love for basketball, they were united.
We will miss the energy and eagerness these girls had for anything we planned for them. From them, we have learned to appreciate each other in new ways, and to remember that we don’t need to share a language to share our love.
The Sports Visitors program is a part of the Empowering Women and Girls through SportsInitiative through the U.S. Department of State. As facilitators of these programs and cooperative partners of the grant, we carry out the planning and implementation to make sure these athletes and coaches receive training andresources that can help them become strong women in their communities.