International Support: Cooper Ward
(Sydney, NS) - With both basketball teams having suffered devastating losses at the 2019/20 AUS Championships last month, Capers players and coaches will no doubt be turning to friends and families for support in the coming weeks. For student-athletes who have come from abroad, that support, whilst just as important, is sometimes trickier to obtain. With time-zones, work schedules, classes and team commitments to navigate, it can be a challenge to organise those long-distance calls that are so important to a person's well-being. For most international student-athletes, support often takes the form of families huddling around laptops to watch live-streams of their game or catching a quick video chat in between classes.
Rewind to two weeks before the Championships. The Capers are in Halifax going through their warm-up prior to a crucial game against the SMU Huskies. First-year Caper and Australian native Cooper Ward is running drills, fully focused on the upcoming fixture when, from across the gym, he hears a recognisable voice call out his name.
"Well, it's kind of funny, one of my teammates, Noah Dunn, had helped with organizing everything so he knew what was happening. On the day we had our usual morning shootaround, so I didn't really think of anything besides locking into the game, but we were doing a drill and all I hear is 'Cooper!' I turned around and it was my Mum. At first, I was surprised but then I started crying because I had missed her so much and was so happy to see her."
It was a moment that neither Mum or Son are ever likely to forget. Months of planning and secrecy had precluded the surprise and that's without taking into account the sheer scale of the journey. Over 10,000 miles and 24 hours separate Ipswich, Australia and Sydney, Nova Scotia but Cooper's Mum, Debbie, said she always planned to make the trip in order to surprise and support her son in person.
"I always knew that I would come and see Cooper in Cape Breton as we are very close and I missed him terribly. The first semester he was at CBU he was rather homesick and many times he struggled with being so far away. I booked to come to Cape Breton in October last year and kept it a secret from everybody."
For first-year BACS student, Cooper, the support of his family has been a constant throughout his life and although the visit came as a surprise, the level and passion of said support did not. Receiving that consistent encouragement has not only provided the Capers forward with a secure platform for life as a university student but also with an insight as to how to build relationships within a team.
"Ever since I started playing my family has always supported me with whatever I need, whether it be new shoes or game fees they have always been there. As a person, it has shown me to never give up and if you're going to do something, go in 100%. As an athlete, it has shown me how to treat your teammates no matter what they are going through and to treat them like family."
Having a family member travel so far to watch and support would be enough to heighten the nerves of even the most stoic athlete, but Cooper fought to translate that pressure into improved performances. Despite the Huskies game ending in a crushing overtime loss, Cooper and his Mum were able to enjoy a crucial weekend sweep against Acadia in Cape Breton.
"To be honest when I play, I never really feel pressure but there was a level of certainty that I had to play well because it was her first time seeing me on the CBU floor. I always try to play to the best of my ability every time I step onto the floor but with her being there, I had to give that little bit extra."
For Debbie Ward, any notion of pre-game anxiety was quashed by the desire to support her son as she watched the Capers desperately fight their way to a playoff berth. Having previously been limited to watching games with Cooper's grandmother via live stream in Australia, Debbie took full advantage of being present in order to encourage and motivate in person.
"It was great to see they won back-to-back games and must-win games at that. I didn't have any pre-game nerves, I don't think I've ever had any of those to be honest. It was nice to have a pre-game chat to Cooper to say what I always say, play hard, play fair and have a good game. It was a nice feeling that he knew I was in the crowd watching him and supporting him. I am always proud of how Cooper plays and I was impressed with how he has become quite a strong physical player."
With a number of snowstorms having ravaged Cape Breton Island throughout the month February, opportunities for Cooper and Debbie to explore the area were disappointingly limited but both Mum and Son were more than happy to simply spend time together and share the experience of student life at CBU. Whether it was helping with the cooking, shopping or washing up, both parties were content being surrounded by feelings of familiarity, support and home.
"I think she really enjoyed it, I think she was just happy to see my day to day lifestyle and what I do. She said she wants to come back every year because everyone was so welcoming and nice. The team has been great as they know how far I am from home. The fellas are always cracking jokes and there's never a dull moment. I feel like, at CBU, I have a home away from home."
Whilst having a family member so far away is, undeniably, a challenge for all involved, the fusing of support from friends and family provides student-athletes with a truly unique opportunity to connect, thrive and grow as people. Reiterating those sentiments and emphasising the importance of togetherness within a collegiate community, Debbie feels comforted upon leaving Cape Breton. Comforted by the bonds her son has forged in his first semester at CBU, comforted by making the right decision and most importantly comforted by her son's happiness.
"I met so many friendly people at CBU and it made my job of leaving him that little bit easier knowing he had so many people looking out for him. The overall experience was wonderful. Words cannot describe how I felt knowing I was coming to CBU to see Cooper. The countdown began months ago and I am sure my workmates got sick of me talking about it. I am happy that I got to see where Cooper lives, studies and plays basketball. Knowing that he is happy and doing what he loves made my trip 200% worthwhile."