EXPERIENCE IN OVERCOMING CHALLENGES CREATES LEADERSHIP OPPORTUNITY
Ainhoa Olarra knows all about the challenges international student-athletes face when they first arrive on campus, and now the lone senior on the women’s golf team is taking on a leadership role to help younger student-athletes get on the right path.
“Being an international [student-athlete], we can have bad days because our family is so far away, and we have other issues, too,” said Olarra, a native of San Sebastian, Spain. “I just try to make sure everyone is OK. Communication is something we have to work on all of the time.
“Coach [Kalen Anderson] and [associate head coach] Puggy [Blackmon] have entrusted [leadership] to me. I’m in the Gamecock Leadership Academy. I’ve learned a lot there, so I try to bring those activities from there to our team sometimes. As a senior, I guess I’m the oldest, and the one who is supposed to know the most. I’m just trying to make all of my teammates comfortable, even if they’re not one of the ones playing in the lineup. I want them to feel that we need them, too.”
Olarra had a breakthrough season last year, ranking second on the team in stroke average at 72.71, which was the fourth best in program history, while helping the Gamecocks once again reach the NCAA Championships where she finished tied for tenth overall. She picked up where she left off in the team’s fall season opener by firing a career best 66 (-6) in the final round of Mason Rudolph Championships in Nashville, Tenn.
“On the last day I was hitting it so bad when I was warming up,” Olarra laughed. “The ball was going everywhere, and then I went out and shot six-under [par]. That’s golf. Sometimes you don’t know why it’s happening.”
I like our coaches. The coaches complement and balance each other.
Getting to where she is now in her career took work, and making the transition to going to school in a different country wasn’t easy.
“When I first came here, my English was pretty bad,” Olarra said. “I had trouble communicating with people around me. Sometimes I couldn’t understand what people were saying, so I would just smile a lot. People here thought I was funny because I smiled so much. I felt a little bit by myself my freshman year sometimes, and that was hard.”
Olarra acknowledged that difficulties off of the golf course also led to troubles on the golf course. As time went on, the more comfortable she was being in America, the more her game improved.
“I didn’t play well my freshman year,” Olarra said. “You just need time to adjust. There are things that you don’t think are affecting you, but they are. It’s stressful. You put in so much effort in adjusting, and at the end of the day, you are so tired. After that, my English was better, and I was playing better.
“I like our coaches. The coaches complement and balance each other. Coach (Anderson) is really fun, and she takes care of everybody. Puggy is a like a dad sometimes. He corrects our swing when we need it.”
Golf started out as a family activity as she first picked up the golf clubs at the age of seven, hitting balls at a driving range with her family.
“After that, every Sunday, it was a like a family plan,” Olarra said. “We’d all go. I started getting better and better. My family loves playing now. I like how persistent you have to be, and how much you have to push yourself to keep improving.”
The desire to improve saw her golf career takeoff, and she was representing her country on the links by the time she was a teenager. In June, she and teammate Ana Pelaez played for the Spanish National Team and advanced to match play at the 114th Ladies’ British Open Amateur Championship in South Wales where Olarra advanced to the final match and earned runner-up honors. In July, the duo helped Spain earn fourth-place honors at the 2017 European Ladies’ Team Championship in Portugal.
“Ana was on the team, too, so that was really fun,” Olarra said. “I’ve been playing European Team Championships since I was 14. Those tournaments are so much fun. We’re so loud, and we have fun. “The tournament in Wales helped me. It was two days of regular medal play, and then match play. It was good practice for NCAAs because the format of that is the same.”
As she works to improve the game and help her teammates any way she can, the adjustments she has made in her collegiate career have carried over in all aspects of her life. Olarra not only earned Golfweek Honorable Mention All-America honors last year for her performance on the links, but she has also earned multiple scholar All-American honors. Olarra is a double major, studying management and economics.
“I really like the people all around us here,” Olarra said. “I love my [academic] advisor [Rochelle Robinson], she’s the best! She has helped me so much. I probably had the most tutors ever my freshman year. And everyone else around here who is in touch with our team, they all try to make us feel at home.”