Eight months into her life at Cal, Lara Kruggel sat in field hockey coach Shellie Onstead’s office, tears streaming down her face. The emotional toll had become too much. She looked up, and, in broken English, she told her coach:
“I’m going home. I don’t want to do this anymore.”
While Kruggel had expressed wanting to go home before, this was the first time that Onstead really believed her.
Coming to Cal as a Division I NCAA athlete is a huge transition from high school, but Kruggel was having an especially difficult time. As an international student from Germany, she spoke no English. She could not understand her professors in class. She could not understand her coach on the field. She could not even manage to hold a conversation with her roommate, fellow field hockey player Andrea Earle, known for being the fastest talker on the team.
Google Translate quickly became Kruggel’s best friend. And while Google may be useful for deciphering basic phrases, relying on it for anything more advanced is bound to lead one astray. The arduous process of translating lecture slides and homework word by word required time and effort with only subpar results.
Kruggel’s parents soon came to expect their daughter’s teary phone calls on a daily basis. Seeing their daughter wanting so badly to end her career at Cal and come back home was alarming. Coming from a family where both her father and grandfather played field hockey, Kruggel started playing when she was 4 years old. She lived and breathed field hockey, and her work ethic and competitive nature meant that she had never allowed a challenge to send her running.
“In the beginning it was very difficult for her,” says Kruggel’s mother, Andrea, in a heavy accent. “She was too young, and she didn’t really speak English. And it was too new for her and too big, and she was alone here. And we didn’t, we couldn’t…” Andrea turns to her daughter.
“They couldn’t be there,” Kruggel says.
Her mom nods and continues, “So she has many problems, and we have to talk with her each day. And she was crying, and each day, she has a new problem.”
In Germany, Kruggel played at the elite level, bringing home a second-place trophy at the European Championships. While field hockey was the only aspect of Cal that felt familiar, even that felt foreign. In European field hockey clubs, it is not uncommon for the players to sit on the field and enjoy a beer after the game. Kruggel had a tough time adjusting to the strict expectations of the Cal athletic program. With her free-spirited, spontaneous nature, Kruggel didn’t understand why Onstead would become so frustrated when she showed up late and unprepared.
“To come into a program like this — which is pretty damn demanding — it was hard for her,” Onstead says. “But what happens, because this is how you get it going, is that if any one player is late, everybody runs.”
Kruggel’s tardiness forced the team to run extra laps, which they did begrudgingly. Their frustration, combined with Kruggel’s difficulties communicating, made it hard for her to fit in seamlessly with the team culture. Having come to Cal in the spring, instead of the fall, only contributed to her sense of disconnect. She didn’t quite fit in with the freshmen on the team who had already been at Cal for a semester but wasn’t quite part of the next group of recruits, either.
Getting to know her teammates was something Kruggel didn’t have time for. She spent most of her time between classes and field hockey practice holed up in her room, going through lecture slides, trying to understand and translate the jumbled mess of letters. While Kruggel’s hard work in hockey had always paid off on the field, no matter how hard she worked in her classes, she couldn’t seem to overcome her inability to speak English.
“You know, there are people who don’t study, and they still get good grades,” Kruggel says. “I always was this person who was very working hard in school but also hockey. Like, I am still practicing every day. And I would never rely on just my skills or anything.”
During her tumultuous freshman year, Kruggel made the understandably common mistake of boarding the wrong bus. Before she realized it, she had ended up at the Berkeley Marina, and, upon seeing the water, she froze with terror. She was stranded and had a midterm later that afternoon fast approaching.
“I remember texting all my friends saying, ‘I’m at the ocean. I don’t know how to get back to Berkeley,’ ” Kruggel says. “And I was stuck there. And it was just the water, some birds. So I was just, ‘Oh my God.’ ”
The next bus wouldn’t arrive for an hour, which wouldn’t give her nearly enough time to get back to campus in order to take the exam. As she stood there trying to come up with a solution, a man in a truck rolled down his passenger window and asked if she needed a ride.
“I was like ‘OK, I know I can die right now, very dangerous, but I need to go to this midterm,’ ” Kruggel says.
She threw caution to the wind and hopped into the car. Luckily, the man was a good Samaritan who had two daughters of his own. After the fact, when Kruggel told Onstead what had happened, the coach practically had a heart attack.
“If I had laid odds, that kid wasn’t going to make it through. And everybody always hits a little wall,” Onstead says. “But she — it would get better a little bit, and then it would — something else would happen.”
Onstead approached the situation as she would with any distressed player. She told Kruggel to take a week off, hang in there and give herself time to grow accustomed to the new territory. She also recommended seeing a psychologist to help cope with the stress, homesickness and depression.
“I did that,” Kruggel says. “And the psychologist called Shellie (Onstead) and was saying, ‘No she needs to go home. Like, she is depressed. She is not doing fine anymore.’ ”
At the end of her sophomore year, she had the opportunity to spend time with her team in Argentina — where she lived when she was 16. The visit gave Kruggel the opportunity to bond with the other players without the pressures of school getting in the way. Every four years, the team is allowed to fundraise for a trip, and, when considering where to visit, Onstead says Kruggel being able to see her mother’s side of the family was one factor in the decision to go to Argentina.
Showing her teammates her old stomping grounds and revisiting her favorite field hockey memories provided Kruggel with a much-needed break from the stressful, high-pressure environment back at Cal. Later in the trip, the group visited her grandparents’ house, where she lived while playing hockey in Argentina. Traveling with the team and introducing them to her family was an instrumental part of the bonding process for Kruggel, who was able to connect with the players on a deeper level.
“The more you get to know her, the more you realize that she’s very team-oriented, very family-oriented,” Onstead says.
Kruggel’s family was essential in her ability to overcome such a difficult time in her life, and she credits them with instilling values such as hard work and perseverance in her when she was a young child.
“She is a fighter, you know,” her mother says. “She’s always fighting. If she wants to do something, then she do it. Until the end. This is a very good quality that she has.”
So, as comforting as the thought of returning to Germany to be with her family and her old hockey club was, Kruggel knew that she couldn’t allow herself to go back. While the situation was still rough, she couldn’t bear the idea of returning home, knowing that her parents were working so hard and that she hadn’t done all she could to take advantage of the opportunity to study and play hockey at the best public university in the world.
Since her freshman year, Kruggel has grown tremendously — from mastering the ability to speak English to becoming a leader on her team. Kruggel now thinks of her teammates as sisters, spending Thanksgiving with their families and laughing and dancing on bus rides to practice. Onstead has become like a second mother to her, and the relationship they have fostered is evident in the way the coach’s face lights up when talking about Kruggel.
“She’s very, very integrated and well loved now,” Onstead says, smiling.
Now a senior at Cal, Kruggel has seen her last year as an emotional rollercoaster — but of a much different kind than her first. While the prospect of leaving Cal once seemed like a solution to her problems, the idea of being anywhere else is now bittersweet.
“Now I feel home here, too,” Kruggel says. “It’s a weird feeling. I think I am not realizing it yet. You know, you’re still like, ‘Now I think I’m just on a break and then next semester I’m obviously going to start playing again.’ It’s not going to happen. I think it’s going to hit me later on. … You realize, you know, we’re all part of the same university, but it’s a family.”
The day after the season ended, Kruggel walked out of a tattoo parlor with fresh ink. Across her ribcage, in delicate cursive writing, reads: California Golden Bears. The tattoo is strangely reminiscent of her Cal experience — having to go through such pain, but ultimately finding satisfaction — the results of which she will carry with her forever.
Jessi McDonald covers field hockey. Contact her at [email protected].