Photo of Indian basketball player Sanjana Ramesh(HT Sports)
Photo of Indian basketball player Sanjana Ramesh(HT Sports)

Sanjana Ramesh, adjusting to new normal in a foreign land

Adapting to the way things are in United States was tough for Indian basketball player Sanjana Ramesh when she moved there after bagging a scholarship to the Northern Arizona University (NAU) in 2019.
By B Shrikant | Hindustan Times, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON NOV 25, 2020 11:13 PM IST

Adjusting to life in a foreign country is very difficult even otherwise because of different systems, different culture, language and stuff. The Covid-19 pandemic has actually added to their woes.

Adapting to the way things are in United States was tough for Indian basketball player Sanjana Ramesh when she moved there after bagging a scholarship to the Northern Arizona University (NAU) in 2019. It was a demanding time adjusting to the new games system of play (from an alrounder, she has to switch to being a power forward), cementing a place in team with stronger players and playing against physically superior teams. Add to that loneliness one feels without family and friends in a new country, trying to get a hang of the strange accents and getting them to understand you ---all of which made her first year in the US an arduous one.

But just when she thought she had got a hang of things and tweaked her lifestyle and playing abilities to adjust in the situation, the Novel Coronavirus pandemic brought things to a screeching halt and she had to return home as the colleges were closed.

Back in the US after a three-month Covid-19 break, the 19-year-old says the last couple of months have been “crazy” while getting back into shape for the upcoming season.

“I feel like the whole life has been turned upside down because of this pandemic. The strangest thing is to play with the masks, and it has become such a routine now, wearing masks everywhere you go. We started playing with the mask, started warming up with the mask, originally. It was really weird for us first. Also, the gyms are not even open all the time now, we have to go at specific time (4.30 to 6.30pm daily), then we have to get tested thrice a week, it is just like our routine has changed.

“So, it feels different. Other than that, even food wise (there have been changes). In America they actually don’t have dine-in, you have to take food to your dorm to eat, which is another different thing for me because I like to chill with my friends. I have to made a few sacrifices here and there because of Covid-19,” Sanjana informed during an online interaction with a group of journalists.

The NAU sophomore who is majoring in business administration, is currently preparing for the upcoming NCAA Division I season starting on Wednesday.

And Sanjana, a Golden Eagle Scholar-Athlete Award recipient in 2020 and only the second Indian after Kavita Akula to bag a full scholarship to a NCAA Division 1 team, says this year, things have been tougher due to the strict Covid-19 protocols that has impacted her training schedule, her education and even her off time, leading to her living like a hermit.

“I am completely isolated (from others), I go for practice and then maybe I will get food and then I am in my dorm the whole time. I only hang out with my teammates and it’s kind of sad. We also have lot of classes and we have our own life, so we don’t hang out with each other much. We see each other at practice but off basketball, it’s just maintaining distance. I don’t really mind that as well because I am trying to understand different aspects of life, I am using this time. I am off social media. It has been completely different from what it was earlier.”

It is not easy for the players to start practice basketball when there is a pandemic raging around. But they have to get ready because there is no other way to get back the feeling of normalcy.

“I think all we athletes don’t want to take any risks, especially me as I am in US and if I do actually get corona, that’s not a situation I want to encounter because you won’t have the support system that you have back home. So, definitely I feel more isolated. But I think it is a necessary sacrifice if you have to play and have this season. I really want to play and I have a really good chance of playing a lot this year,” says Sanjana.

NAU start their campaign on the road against University of Las Vegas on Wednesday before taking on neighbours University of Arizona in Tucson and then jump into the Big Sky Conference engagements with back-to-back matches at Eastern Washington.

It’s a busy fortnight for them and the 19-year-old from Bangalore, who has led India at the Asian U-16 Championships a few years back and has also represented the senior team, had to put in lot of efforts to keep pace with teammates who are physically stronger and better prepared because they were in the US.

But it has not been easy for Sanjana and other players getting used to playing games after a big break

“Playing a game after a long, long time, it feels a bit weird. I still haven’t registered it that I am going to play against another team. I have been playing against my own teammates and we have been progressing every week. We started playing on our own first and then one-on-one, then two-on-two and now we all play as a team Everyone is safe, everyone is secure. So now I know I have to tell my mind that I am going to play against another team next week. I feel that it is still a little weird, like knowing that you will be touching each other, sharing the air in a room. I definitely miss those things a lot. I really feel that this year has put a strain on us physically and mentally. But still I am really looking forward to it.”

There have been a few positives too. The coaches who were earlier very tougher on Sanjana because they want her to toughen up as a player, have been a bit lenient with everyone because they all feel that “winning the championship is not the most important thing, even your health is important.”

The system and infrastructure in the US too have helped her adapt to the new situation. “We have had a lot of team meetings to discuss about Black Lives Matter, about a lot of different issues in different countries we even had a discussion over the Covid situation and what we should do.

“It is mentally and physically exhausting sometimes. It has been very hard. We have had sessions on mental conditioning, just to get stronger mentally, we have had sessions with therapists too, like counselling.

“There are people here who really want to help you, there are opportunities that can help you. like if you are feeling very low, counselling, but no one talks about it at home because it is stigmatised in India,” Sanjana adds.

But Sanjana says she has improved a lot as a player after coming to the US and plans to continue doing that despite the limitations.

Having geared up for the restart, Sanjana has set goals for herself but says she will not to be as strict about them as earlier.

“I do have expectations but feel like I shouldn’t keep them high because the chance of even cancelling a few games is a possibility because of how COVID-19 is. My personal goals are like at least to play 10 minutes a game, or be the leading shot blocker in our conference or get at least six rebounds (per game) -- they are very detailed goals for the season. But it’s gonna be hard, because if anyone on our team gets COVID-19 and everyone else is fine, we will have a 14-day shutdown. If players from more than one get it, it’s going to be a complete shutdown -- a lot games might get cancelled.”

One of the goals she wants her team to achieve this year is to beat local rivals Portland State University, against whom they have a very poor record. “We feel we are a better team than them and are always placed towards the top of the table whereas they are at the bottom. However, whenever we play them, we invariably come up with our worst performance. We have never beaten them ever,”Sanjana says.

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