BY INMA ZANOGUERA

Back in the summer of 2011, as I was preparing to take a 15 hour trip to start my college career as a student-athlete, my story was a rare one. I am from Spain, but I had always had a dream to play college sports, in America. That year, there were only three of us taking the leap of faith to an unknown land, with unfamiliar people, and among a culture so different from our own. What we were doing was unheard of. But in the following years, things changed — in 2015, more than 32 Spanish girl student-athletes found home in colleges throughout the United States.

But in terms of my story, we are still in 2011. As the years went by, I became a stronger pillar for my basketball team at the University of Toledo. I remember vividly how excited I was when I was given a “defensive assignment,” where I was matched up to the opposing team’s star player; or when, in crucial moments of an important game, my coach used my quick first step as a small forward as a weapon: “You are faster than her,” she said. ”Get the ball on the perimeter, and go to town!” By the end of my sophomore year, after winning the regular season championship, people who had followed my journey from Spain became interested. They looked at my shares on social media, curious as to what exactly it was that I was celebrating, and wondered how a Spanish-style basketball player could have contributed to the success of a U.S. college team. They asked: “How has US basketball changed you?” and “How is basketball different in America?” Countless times I gave the same answers to the same questions: “Basketball is so different there!” and “Oh yeah, I definitely am a different player now.”

“The workouts were more intense, harder, and longer, not to mention the impossibly early hours in which they took place.”

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By the end of my college career, after four years of intense discipline and dedication, I was definitely a different player. Admittedly, when I was younger I did not always take basketball seriously. I thought I did, but it wasn’t until my first pre-season in Toledo that I learned the depth to which “serious” can be taken—expectations from my teammates were higher, and the workouts were more intense, harder, and longer, not to mention the impossibly early hours in which they took place, as early as 6 am. Inevitably, I became a better player. This is not to say practices aren’t hard in Spain. I am only referring to my personal experience in terms of the intensity of the workouts I was being put through. I had always wanted to play professional basketball, and, in large part thanks to what I learned during my time as a student-athlete in Toledo, I was able to sign a contract with a D1 Italian team, in the town of Battipaglia.

Throughout my basketball career, friends, family, and basketball fans and I often have conversations in which the one and only topic was the physicality of American players versus the technicality of their European counterparts, and where I stand in the spectrum. Don’t take me wrong, I had my share of fun answering these kinds of questions: “Do you think your physicality gives you an advantage when playing in Europe?” and “Do you think that’s part of the reason why you are able to play significant minutes on a U.S college team?” But the point here is this: Nobody ever asked me “How has basketball in the United States changed you?” People don’t usually find it important to regard what, in the former athlete’s psyche, is changed after sports. Which is a shame, if you ask me, because it is that, precisely, that is the most exciting.

“Let us celebrate […] all the amazing ways in which sports can contribute to the development, empowerment, and progress of women.”

Rarely does a female athlete have the opportunity to practice her sport as a profession without having to secure a job afterward—that’s just the sad reality of women’s sports. While I have hopes we will break the gender gap soon, let us celebrate, in the meantime, all the amazing ways in which sports can contribute to the development, empowerment, and progress of women, even if these ways may not involve (for now) a life-long professional sports career.

If somebody were to ask me how has sports changed you, as a person, as a woman? I would straighten my back in excitement and pride, I would clear my throat so that my voice would sound strong and clear, and I would say this: “Through sports I learned discipline and hard work. I realized that there are no limits, but the ones I put on myself. Most importantly, though, I learned that I don’t need to put limits on myself, regardless of what is expected of me—only I know the reach of my strength, and I will never let anybody keep me from my full potential. I learned that I can do what I set out to do, if only I work hard, be persistent, and believe in myself. Through sports I became confident. Through sports I realized that the more I empower those around me, the more I become empowered myself.”

I have always been strong, confident, and resilient in my ambitions. But it was through basketball that those qualities sprung. It was thanks to the demands of playing sports at a high level that I discovered a strength I didn’t know I had. I no longer play professional sports, but all the sacrifices, all the trials and battles—successful or otherwise—all that I have experienced through basketball has taught me priceless lessons on relentlessness, strength, leadership, and hope. Wherever I go next, whatever it is I do, I will carry those lessons with me forever. I wish girls all over the world will have the chance to discover that through the magic of athletics.