Originally from Antwerp, Belgium, Axelle Wouters is currently playing for the KHC Dragons. But at 17, she left Belgium to come play field hockey in the United States at the University of Michigan.
After three years away from the U.S. Axelle returned to visit her American ‘home’ earlier this summer. It was fun to reflect back on her time spent in the United States and see some familiar faces. She believes that playing for a university in America was an invaluable experience that truly shaped her life – giving her a chance to study at a world-class university, live in the U.S., play field hockey at a competitive level, learn different skills and training regimens, and most importantly, make lifelong friends.
In our most recent chat, Axelle looked back on her college years and talked about visiting the American teammates she’s still close to.
Was it intimidating to move to the United States?
“As a 17-year-old from Braxgata Hockey Club, I was excited but nervous about committing to the University of Michigan to play field hockey. I’d never even visited the university beforehand! I didn’t know what to expect, but found loads of reasons to go. I’d always wanted to play in the U.S. to get the “American University Experience”.
What’s the “University Experience”?
“It’s like what you see in the movies! The houses, the facilities, how athletes are treated… My favorite part about playing in the U.S. is the athletic facilities and the way you are treated as an athlete. It shocked me the amount of money the universities have for athletic facilities.
Field hockey-wise in the US, I would say stadiums tend to be larger and more full, but the fans tend to know less about the sport because there is no mens hockey or family clubs. I would say the technical skills in Belgium are better compared to those in the U.S., but tactical and fitness wise it is comparable to the level in Belgium. There is a lot of focus on heavy weight-training.
I studied Pre-Med and school-wise didn’t find it super difficult. Combining school and hockey in the U.S. is way easier than in Belgium. I did not have troubles studying in English at all. And if you have some troubles, there are always teammates or tutors from the athletic department who can help you out.
Most universities have foreign players now. In my team at Michigan, we had another Belgian girl, a forward and a defender from England, some Canadians, a Dutch goalie, and an Irish striker. Plus we had American girls from all over the U.S., so the team culture was very unique. Everyone was from somewhere else, had different backgrounds and ways of speaking, but we all loved hockey.
I found my team in the U.S. to be spirited and have lots of traditions… My favorite traditions……
1) Freshmen have to earn their jersey, 2) Music, dancing, singing before a game, 3) Senior day! But some of us got in trouble for our senior pranks.”
What is the structure of the U.S. hockey season?
“Season is in the Fall (starting end of August and ending in November). Games are two times a weekend and you play the same amount of home and away games. The away games are either within your conference (mine was the Big10) or anywhere in the U.S. There can be a lot of travel and a big time commitment.
You have three championships. Within your conference, you play a regular season and then a tournament. During regular season, you play each team in your conference once. Depending on your final ranking at the end of the regular season, you play in a tournament to try and win your conference. If you did well in your conference, you can play in the national league (NCAA). Your opponent and the location are chosen with a lottery.”
Was it hard to get recruited?
“I found out that the recruiting process in the U.S. starts way earlier than I expected. End of your second to last year and begin of your last year in high school is too late. My dad knew someone from Belgium who had a lot of connections with coaches in all different kind of sports and who knew what to do (paperwork) to enter a U.S. university.
He sent a video of my field hockey skills, my results on the SAT and TOEFL tests, and some other information to a lot of field hockey coaches in the U.S. and they contacted me if they were interested in having me on their team. Afterwards, I’d wished I could just know what was going on. It was a complicated process, and it was about my future. Players today who can use something like Uru Sports are lucky, because it tells them everything they need to know and it’s much simpler.”
Was playing in the United States worth it?
“Honestly, it was definitely worth the effort. I had an amazing time at Michigan and made some really good friends. I definitely grew as a better player tactic and fitness level-wise.
The U.S. is an incredible place to live for a couple years. Just traveling, even if you take off a couple months, you don’t get the full experience. On the recent trip to Ann Arbor, I had all these places with strong memories that I made sure to visit on the trip back. A few of the old pubs of course. The athletic facilities, the dorms, the academic buildings, some good breakfast places (Cafe Zola, Angelo’s), Mden, my old house on Dewey…
And I got to visit my old teammates who I’m still very close with. I saw Lauren Kent back who is living in Sacramento, but we actually met up in South Lake Tahoe. Jaime Dean and Andrew Hayden in San Diego (Carlsbad), Liesl Morris in Los Angeles and Lucia Belassi White (assistant coach) and some of my favorite teammates Ainsley McCallister, Emy Guttman, and Lauren Hauge in Ann Arbor.
I came back to the U.S. for this trip because I had a great time at Michigan, and I wanted to share/show my memories with my boyfriend and of course to see some old teammates and friends again! I also wanted to see more of the U.S. so we did a lot of traveling to new places. My favorite places in the U.S. are the the national parks. Especially Yosemite and Zion!”
What advice would you give to players looking to play in the U.S.?
“If you have an inkling of desire to go to the U.S., go! But do your research first. You don’t need to spend $3,000+ on an expensive agent. Instead do your own research and use the resources put together by some of the top coaches in the U.S. If I had known this first, it would have helped me so much.
Also having the Uru team to talk to, who have coached and played there, is an incredible resource. The Uru team is well loved in the U.S. and their word always seems extremely well valued by coaches. Uru is not only making it easier to play in the U.S., but they’re making it easier to find the right program and team for you so you want to come visit again.”