Williams Coaches U.S. Team in South Africa, Experiences more than just Softball

Willamette Head Coach Damian Williams with U.S. softball players in South Africa
Willamette Head Coach Damian Williams with U.S. softball players in South Africa

By Robert McKinney, Assistant Athletics Director, Communications

SALEM, Ore. -- Willamette University softball Head Coach Damian Williams went on a two-week trip to South Africa this summer to coach collegiate softball players from throughout the United States in a series of international games. The trip was much more than a softball-playing experience, as everyone involved learned about each other, made new friends, and gained knowledge about South Africa and its various racial groups.

Those traveling from the U.S. included Williams, three other coaches, and a total of 60 softball players. Four former Willamette athletes also traveled to South Africa as administrators from Beyond Sports, which organized the endeavor.

Williams and most of the others began their journey on June 18 and returned to the U.S. on June 30. For Williams, his trip began with a plane flight from Seattle to Washington, D.C., followed by a flight to New York. He met up with about half of the group in Washington and they continued on through New York, before flying to Senegal.

"When we landed in Senegal, there were U.S. military aircraft on the tarmac, so I felt really safe," Williams recalled.

From Senegal, the group flew on to Johannesburg, South Africa, and then went on a short flight to Cape Town. The flight from Senegal to Johannesburg lasted between six and seven hours. Players and coaches reached their hotel at 8 p.m. to complete the long day.

"So a full day of travel and layovers," Williams said. "You get to know people pretty quickly when you're taking strangers to a foreign land. They're counting on you.

"That's a huge adventure," Williams added. "It was a lot of kids' first time flying … lots on their first international flight."

"There is really no quick way to get to South Africa from the United States," said Grant Leslie, one of the trip's administrators. "There were several students who had never been on an airplane before and their first flight was 15 hours from the East Coast to Johannesburg.

The exciting adventure was just beginning in a positive way.

Williams and the other coaches each led one of four 15-player teams from the U.S. The coaches were helped in organizing the trip by the administrators from Beyond Sports, who also helped with logistics. The administrators worked in pairs.

Administrators were Leslie '09, Erin Norris '15, Ryan Bourke '12 and Kyler McClary '09. Williams coached one of the two teams assigned to Leslie and Norris. The remaining two teams were assigned to Bourke and McClary.

Leslie played football and men's basketball at Willamette before graduating with a B.A. degree in rhetoric and media studies. He later added an MBA from the Atkinson Graduate School of Management at Willamette in 2010. Norris played softball for the Bearcats and earned a B.A. degree with a double major in Spanish and Latin American studies.

Bourke was a football player at WU who received a B.A. degree in rhetoric and media studies. McClary competed in men's basketball as a Bearcat. He graduated with a B.A. degree in American studies. He finished a master's degree in teaching at the University of Portland in 2012.

Williams, Leslie, Bourke and McClary shared a room at the hotel in Cape Town. Norris shared a room with an intern from Beyond Sports.

"I only knew them as student-athletes. Being able to see Grant, Erin, Kyler and Ryan as professionals … to see them in their work setting … was amazing," Williams added. "They put in a lot of good work. The trip wouldn't have been a success without them." 

Williams was impressed with the hotel, which was located just one-half block from the beach. He also was impressed with the hotel's staff.

"Accommodations were excellent," Williams recalled. "They were definitely first class. We made friends with the (hotel and food) staff because we were there so much."

Choosing the right hotel and the right location in Cape Town were important to creating a successful experience for everyone involved with the trip.

"Our top priority with any of our trips is student safety and finding quality hotel accommodations in safe areas is critical," Leslie said. "With that being said, we have to keep our programs as affordable as possible so that students from any financial background can participate."

"The South Africans who worked with us on this trip went above and beyond to ensure that we had a great time," McClary recalled. "They were so passionate about sport being a positive force in their communities, and so eager to help out in any way they could."

Once the four teams were in South Africa, the group began to focus on softball.

"The first day we were there, my team practiced with ourselves and the other teams," Williams said.

Players on the trip were from NCAA Division II, NCAA Division III and NAIA colleges and universities from throughout the United States. The list of athletes included rising juniors and rising seniors, plus seniors who graduated this past spring. Many of the players were All-Conference selections.

"We had some great teams. We had some great players," Williams said.

"We were very excited to see such a positive response to our new softball program in South Africa," Leslie recalled. "We had done a lot of research before choosing Cape Town as a destination and we knew that it was a very unique offering for college athletes."

Although none of the players were Willamette athletes, the Bearcats were well represented by Williams and the four Beyond Sports administrators.

"South Africa had three teams we played against," Williams said. "On the second day, my team played the University team." The other teams representing South Africa were the Junior National Team and a provincial team from the Western Cape.

"I think players from both teams start out a little nervous," Bourke said. "But as soon as the game starts, everyone falls into their comfort zone. There was a lot of camaraderie between the teams with high-fiving, chatting on base, and taking photos after the game."

On the third day, the teams had a chance to see a bit more of South Africa.

"We hiked Table Mountain," Williams said. "We went to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held. The tours (at Robben Island) were conducted by former prisoners."

The tour of Robben Island had an emotional impact on those who attended.

"Our visit to Robben Island was very moving," Williams recalled. "To learn the history of a huge piece of Apartheid was more than educational. You can still feel the emotion and the scars from the former prisoner who guided our tour. We also met the guard who was in charge of Nelson Mandela. They became friends and after Mandela's release, he became a part of Mandela's cabinet."

For the next several days, the focus was once again on softball and interacting with the South African teams.

"We had three games and did a camp one day. We had four days of softball," Williams said about his team. Overall, the four U.S. teams played a total of 12 games and conducted two camps. "The South Africans got to play a lot of softball," Williams added.

The teams from the U.S. dominated much of the competition, but the games were more about teaching the fundamentals and allowing for competition between athletes from different sides of the globe.

 "It was absolutely awesome. No matter what the score was, the South Africans were very gracious," Williams said. "They always wanted to learn and they were just happy to be on the field playing against the Americans."

"We couldn't have asked for a better atmosphere at the stadium and really felt the support of the community. The South Africans provided solid competition and were very grateful for the opportunity," Leslie noted.

"Games between our U.S. players and South African local teams were a blast to watch because even though the style of play and coaching styles varied between teams, the girls would talk to each other in between pitches or even hang out after the games talking and getting to know each other," Norris said. "For many of our U.S. players and the university age players from Cape Town, it was their first experience playing softball with international rules."

McClary agreed that the interactions between athletes were impressive. "The best part of the interactions were after the games when the teams would come together to shake hands, take pictures, and get to know one another," he said. "Regardless of the outcome of the game, there was always a lot of laughter and smiles from both sides."

For Norris, the trip completed a journey that began with a study abroad trip as a student at Willamette.

"I was looking into study abroad programs, when Damian told me about a program in Costa Rica," Norris said. "I went to the Beyond Sports website and I applied. That summer I spent two months in Costa Rica working out, playing catch, taking classes and traveling with other athletes from all over the U.S. Fast forward five summers, and I got to be a part of Beyond's first softball tour in Cape Town. The whole experience felt like it had come full circle."

The logistics of setting up the trip were significant, but Leslie, Norris, McClary and Bourke were prepared. They spent plenty of time arranging details of the trip, and also planning for contingencies in case anything changed.

According to Bourke, the biggest challenge was preparing most of the trip while still in the U.S. Volunteers from the South African Softball Federation helped the process go smoothly.

"We arrived in Cape Town a couple of weeks before the trip to make final preparations," Leslie said. "We have to be prepared for every possible emergency and countless scenarios that are outside of our control."

"The challenge for me was setting up a contingency plan for everything," McClary commented. "On the softball trip, I helped plan the itinerary, supervised activities and coordinated logistics."

Some of the preliminary work was fun.

"We really enjoyed exploring different restaurants to test them out before the group arrived," Leslie said. "We believe that food is such an important part of experiencing a culture that we made sure that students never ate at the same restaurant twice."

"In terms of food, Cape Town is such a multicultural city that you can find pretty much anything there," McClary said. "Honestly, the meals were one of the best parts of the trip."

Although the softball games and camps were the primary focus, the trip was about so much more. It was a tremendous overall experience for everyone involved.

"The thing that made this (trip) life-changing is that there are four cultural groups there and we got to hang out with all four groups," Williams said.  "They each had their own take on what had happened (in South Africa, including apartheid). It was very educational and inspiring because you got to hear every side of their story."

South Africa has four primary racial groups: Black (African), White (English and Afrikaners), Indian, and Coloured (mixed-race and those not in any other category).

Williams said that he received a sense of the current state of race relations in South Africa by listening to all of the groups. "It's kind of like where we were (in the U.S.) in the late 60's and early 70's," Williams said. "Segregation is illegal, but people still act on their norms and the history. There was a total class system."

In addition, Williams discovered that the African tribes "still are pretty much separated, but they want to get together."

The desire for a truly integrated South Africa was mentioned by many people from all of the racial groups. It has been a battle for a long time, but things have gradually grown more peaceful since the end of apartheid. As in the U.S., a totally free nation didn't take shape overnight. But much progress has been made. Interactions with the people in South Africa had a great impact on Williams.

"The biggest take away was how open and interested each culture in Africa was … they wanted to share their story," Williams said. "Every group was so gracious … they would give you the shirts off their backs. They shared their homes with us."

Williams was pleased that the South Africans also impacted the young adults from the U.S.

"It was great to see the kids' transformation," Williams said.

Shortly before leaving South Africa, the overall group took a trip outside of Cape Town.

 "We spent three days in Wilderness (a city located on the Cape)," Williams said.  "We drove through the countryside and had a brunch there at an African farm. We got to see both oceans … the Atlantic and the Indian. While we were there, we went to a safari."

After spending about two weeks in Cape Town and throughout the Cape, it was time for the American to return to the United States. Williams and the others found it difficult to leave.

"The last day there … it was extremely hard," Williams said. "All those people who took care of us, made us like family. We formed friendships for life."

"Our hosts blew us away with their generosity and hospitality. South Africa, and Cape Town in particular, is incredibly diverse, which was a very unique experience for our students," Leslie said. "We interacted with people from different races, religions, and cultures … so that our students could experience what makes the 'Rainbow Nation' so special."

"I have never met so many funny, quick-witted people at the same time," Bourke commented. "I felt a huge sense of community and being welcomed."

Eventually, the coaches, players and administrators boarded their flights for the long trip home. It was made easier by the knowledge that all of them had learned a lot in South Africa and that they had developed new friendships, both overseas and among themselves.

"I am always inspired by the feedback we receive from students about how eye-opening the experience is for them," Leslie added.

"A lot of students leave our short-term programs with newfound plans to do a full semester abroad, or spend time back-packing different parts of the world," Bourke said.

"Those four teams became family," Williams noted. "The overall emotional transformation … we all bonded. It was an amazing time together. It felt like we knew each other our whole lives."

For information about Beyond Sports:  http://www.beyondsportstours.com