Often it is New Zealand footballers heading to US colleges to pursue their careers, but in a reverse switch, American midfielder Natalie Dixon tells Hamilton News reporter Tom Rowland, she has learnt many things about football, and life in New Zealand.
Since stepping off the plane in New Zealand in late February, US-born football player Natalie Dixon has been overwhelmed by becoming part of New Zealand.
Born in Lansing, Michigan, Natalie spent much of her childhood in Minnesota before going on to study at Lake Forest College.
While studying, Natalie decided to spend a semester abroad and experience another culture, weighing up both the University of Waikato, and Nottingham Trent University in the United Kingdom.
In the end, she settled on the University of Waikato with a famous story by J.R.R. Tolkien pulling her to New Zealand.
"It sounds cliché, and unfortunately is completely true, but after growing up watching and reading Lord of the Rings , I began researching New Zealand and became fascinated with the landscape of the country," Natalie said.
While studying an English Literature programme at Waikato, which she praises for exceeding all her expectations, Natalie also linked up with Claudelands Rovers Football Club for the winter football season.
A midfielder who also operates on the wing, Natalie said joining Claudelands has been good preparation for when she returns to play in America.
"As I play for my college back home (in Illinois), I am missing our off-season training and preparation for our main season that will start in August. I thought it would make sense to find a team to play for and spend my time staying in shape and getting some touches in. Furthermore, I was intrigued to see if and how the nature of New Zealand football would be compared to back home."
Often it is New Zealand footballers heading to US colleges to pursue their careers, but in a reverse switch, Natalie said she has learnt many things about football, and life in New Zealand.
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"After I had finalised my trip and got a better idea of where I would be living, I began by reaching out to Unicol by explaining my situation, experience level and hopes of finding a team to play for," Natalie said.
She received messages from both Claudelands and Hamilton Wanderers, and decided on the former after speaking with head coach Tai Ballantyne.
"I began speaking with Tai at Claudelands, and started to get a really good feeling about the hopes he had in building a close-knit and competitive team community."
Natalie said that the footballing culture reflects how she has found New Zealand culture in general.
"In America, I never experienced such close-knit after-match meetings where both teams sit down and share a meal and some drinks while talking about the match just played. I have greatly valued and enjoyed this post-game experience and have found it to be one of my favorite aspects of playing for Claudelands."
She said her biggest takeaway from New Zealand football has been that of the commitment of her team mates.
"I think that I can take back a lot from what I've learned from my teammates – especially that of captain Paige McCloskey."
"The work ethic and devotion to her teammates is always evident as she leads and works with each player on the field. I hope to travel back with my gratitude for the ladies I have had the pleasure of playing with because I think that they have helped me improve not only on the field, but off the field as an individual."
Natalie also made special mention of the team's defence, but said the team's play speaks for itself.
"I think that we have so much talent, that Tai is put in a tough spot every time he has to build a starting lineup, which is a great problem to have for a coach in my opinion. I can't stress enough how skilled, hardworking, and lovely each and every one of my teammates has been both on and off the field."
"I was pleasantly surprised by the European possession-type of ball that Tai promoted from the onset of the preseason trainings that I attended."
"I have just been so pleased with the community feel that is promoted throughout the season in club activities, post-match get-togethers, and the whole club room feel."
With four goals in four games this season, Natalie has fitted seamlessly into her new team.
She said that while she has enjoyed the time she is spending in New Zealand, home sickness is starting to creep in and she is excited about returning home at the end of the semester.
"My mum has always referred to me as 'a home body,' which I used to typically shrug off. However, this reality has truly become apparent to me while I've been so far away from home, for the longest time I've ever been away. I struggle with the time difference and, frankly, the huge spatial difference between my family and I. However, I am so grateful and blessed to be having this experience and wouldn't change anything about it."
While excited to return home, Natalie said it will be hard to say goodbye to the new friends and teammates she has made in New Zealand.
"I really can't stress enough how grateful I am to Tai for taking me on the squad and providing me with an instant family from my fourth day in New Zealand, when I showed up to pre-season training at Galloway Field. This experience is something that I will never forget, and I cannot wait to come back and visit the wonderful people that I have met in this country, especially those from Claudelands."